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May 16, 2014

UF baseball an unlikely success story



Zero pitchers with more than five saves. One hitter with at least five home runs and just two batting better than .283. An outfield typically made up of two players who weren't in Gainesville last season and one who missed nearly 20 games of this season to suspension. A makeshift pitching rotation that has seen one player start more than eight games. He's a freshman from Coon Rapids, Minn.

Meet the best baseball team in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division.

Thursday night, Florida did what it has done all season. The Gators fought back and forth with the Tennessee Volunteers in a game that slid into extra innings. When they needed big pitches, they were made. When they needed timely hitting, it came.

By night's end, a 6-5 victory and a division title belonged to Kevin O'Sullivan's team. A dogpile celebration marked the occasion.

"I'm really proud of what we were able to accomplish. Anytime you win 20 games in the best league in the country, it says a lot about how hard your kids have worked throughout the season," O'Sullivan said.

"There's been no quit in this team throughout the year and they always seem to find a way to get a W. At times, it's not the prettiest in the world, but, in the end, a win's a win."

'A win's a win' is one of the most overused coaching clichés around, but there might not be a better way to sum up a season in which the Gators have gone 36-18 overall and 20-8 in SEC play.

Moments have come in bunches for a team without a single senior or a true established star outside of catcher and Johnny Bench Award semifinalist Taylor Gushue, who leads the team batting .318. The Gators struggled mightily at the plate early in the season and never became some kind of batting juggernaut, but it seldom mattered.

Florida's pitching was somewhat anonymous but effective. The bullpen has put together long stretches of dominance despite no real reliance on roles. Bobby Poyner -- once the opening night starter - and freshman Kirby Smart have highlighted the group. They were key to the Gators' victory Thursday.

With two regular season games remaining, Florida has clinched the East and at least a share of the regular season SEC title. An Ole Miss loss in the next two games or one Florida win against Tennessee tonight or Saturday afternoon gives the Gators the outright SEC title.

After a dark 2013, Florida baseball is back on the map in unlikely fashion. It's all thanks to a team that has exceeded expectations in every way.


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