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June 16, 2012

South Carolina last hurdle for Gator baseball to clear


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Now that Florida finally has become the No. 1 baseball program in its state, a new nemesis is standing in the way of the Gators' first national title.

For years and years and years, the Gators were clearly behind FSU and Miami in the Sunshine State's pecking order. They could not match the Seminoles' consistent excellence, never even reaching the College World Series twice in a row until doing it under Kevin O' Sullivan in 2010 and 2011. They cowered whenever they faced the Hurricanes in the postseason, watching Miami celebrate at the end of every Regional or Super Regional the two teams played in until O'Sullivan arrived.

Those days are over. The Gators have whipped the crumbling 'Canes the last four times they have faced each other in the tournament, sweeping them in a 2009 Regional and again in a 2010 Super Regional. By reaching the College Worlds Series for the third consecutive year, they have done something the Seminoles have not accomplished since 1998-2000. Although FSU will join Florida in Omaha this time, it is only the Seminoles' third trip in the last 12 seasons. The Gators also have swept them in three games by the combined score of 19-6.

Florida likely won't have to worry about FSU in Omaha, with the Seminoles on the other side of the bracket and, remarkably, having come up empty in 21 previous College World Series appearances. If history is a guide, Mike Martin's squad will be eliminated early despite having outscored its five NCAA tournament opponents 50-12 en route to Omaha.

Nope, only one team realistically stands in Florida's way - South Carolina.

Somehow, some way, the Gators have to beat the Gamecocks in their opener on Saturday night. Otherwise, a terrific season during the apex of Florida baseball history will be headed for a crushing disappointment.

Sure, it's a double-elimination format. Teams have lost their opener in Omaha and gone on to win the title, including South Carolina as recently as 2010.

But you and I know it ain't happening this time if the Gators lose on Saturday night.

South Carolina is too tournament tough, riding the almost inconceivable high of a 21-game postseason winning streak dating back to that opening-day loss to Oklahoma in the 2010 CWS. The Gamecocks won six in a row to claim that championship, went 10-0 in the 2011 postseason and are five for five this season.

South Carolina's last two victories a year ago were at the expense of Florida, which entered their championship series as a slight favorite but managed only three runs in two painful games.

The Gators have plenty to recommend them this time. They entered the year as the clear favorite to win it all after returning almost everyone from 2011. They started the postseason as the No. 1 overall seed and rolled through their regional and super regional. They're loaded with pitching talent, hit more home runs than anyone else in this dead-bat era (thank you, Mike Zunino and Preston Tucker) and have won three of four from the Gamecocks, all away from Gainesville.

"If the Gators play as good as they're capable, they're almost impossible to beat," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner told the Charleston Post Courier this week. "We will have to play as good as you can play to have an opportunity. But isn't that the way it should be?"

Yet, there is definite cause for concern. After winning 23 of their first 25 games, the Gators were barely over .500 (17-16) for the rest of the regular season. They lost series to NCAA regional teams LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas and were pitiful at the plate when they failed to hit the long ball, scoring three or fewer runs in eight of 12 SEC games at one point. They did not win the SEC regular-season title, blowing an opportunity to share it with a loss to mediocre Auburn on the final Saturday, and they failed to reach the SEC Tournament championship game.

Along the way, they lost because a runner inexplicably failed to tag up on a fly ball (LSU) and because they allowed an almost-unheard of triple steal (Vanderbilt).

Meanwhile, they chafed at any criticism of their performance, insisting everything would be fine in the postseason.

So far, they have been right.

Saturday night will be the ultimate test. O' Sullivan is going with Brian Johnson (8-4), who pitched a complete-game five-hitter in Florida's 7-2 SEC tournament win against South Carolina but has not thrown since June 3 versus Georgia Tech. Despite being picked 31st in the recent Major League draft, he has been the Gators' third-most reliable starter, boasting a so-so ERA of 3.56.

South Carolina will pitch staff ace Michael Roth (7-1, 2.50 ERA). He had a no-decision in the Gamecocks' lone win over Florida, allowing one earned run in 6 2/3 innings, and was the pitcher of record in the Gamecocks' national-title clincher last year.

Win, and the Gators will still have plenty of work to do in pursuit of that first national championship, but they will be set up perfectly with Hudson Randall and Jonathan Crawford still available.

Lose, and it's going to be a long, restless night in Omaha.


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