Gators preparing for another title run in 2021
The Florida Gators baseball team will start the season ranked No. 1 by every media outlet that ranks college baseball teams.
Kevin O’Sullivan’s ballclub started the 2020 season 16-1, they returned their entire weekend rotation, eight-of-nine starters in the field, and had one of the best-recruiting classes in the country. It makes sense for Florida to be looked at as one if, if not the best team in the country. They have the pitching with Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich, and Hunter Barco on the weekend. They have guys like Christian Scott and Nick Pogue that could be Friday night starters at other SEC schools but will come out of the bullpen on the weekend. They have what D1Baseball.com calls the best position player in the country in Jud Fabian manning centerfield. They should hit for average, power, and they’re going to pitch.
We know the strengths of the team and we could go on and on about how good the Gators should be on paper.
What are their weaknesses?
An hour before the team was set to kick off practice for the first time this spring that question was posed to Mace.
“Weaknesses,” Mace had to regurgitate the word trying to make sure he had heard it right, or maybe just trying to buy more time to try and think of something.
“A weakness is probably not knowing how to keep guys happy with how many guys we have coming back, how many guys we have that are able to start right away and not having enough spots on the field for these guys,” Mace said. “Just making sure everyone’s happy, everyone knows what their role is, everyone knows what their job is to make sure the team is successful is probably harder for the coaches than the players.”
That burden ultimately falls on Kevin O’Sullivan. The Gators' official roster holds 39 players. You can only play so many guys in a game and opportunities aren’t going to come easy on a team this deep.
It’s not a new predicament for O’Sullivan, who noted, much to my chagrin when trying to fill out lineup cards last season, that he used numerous different lineups throughout the first month of the season. Ultimately that first month of the season is used to figure out who the best nine are going to be when SEC play starts.
“At the end of the day I think everybody understands that you can only write nine guys in the lineup,” O’Sullivan said. “I think if you go back to last year we had some depth as well and I don’t think we had the same lineup two games in a row consecutively. Everybody will get their fair shot and what they do with their opportunities is totally up to them.”
Take Kirby McMullen, for instance. A senior in 2020, McMullen was moved permanently to third base. He started the season off hot, he had a huge home run against Miami that helped the Gators earn a sweep of the Canes down in Coral Gables. He cooled off some, but as long as he was hitting, his name would keep showing up in the lineup every day. McMullen is back this year thanks to the NCAA giving every senior the opportunity to return for another season after the shortened 2020 campaign. Now, McMullen will be in the same situation, except this time a talented freshman, Colby Halter, is waiting for that one slump and his opportunity to show he’s ready to play at this level.
It isn’t just Kirby either. That level of competition for the nine hitting spots and opportunities on the mound is everywhere. They’ll need leadership from within, not just from the coaching staff.
“It’s counseling guys, pushing them through, and making them better every day for their upcoming job,” Mace said. “It might not be right now. It might not be 2021 but 2022, 2023 these guys are going to be the Friday night guys, they are going to be the third hitting in the lineup. Just getting them comfortable and getting them used to what they have to do every day.”
Florida is No. 1 for a reason but the game of baseball can and will humble you in an instant. What other game can you fail seven out of 10 times and be considered one of the best at what you do in a game?
These “Omaha or Bust” expectations aren’t abnormal for O’Sullivan’s teams. They know that they come into every season with a target on their back but 2021 is setting up differently. This could be the best and deepest team that O’Sullivan has ever had in Gainesville.
“You’ve got to be careful and creative there. We’ll have enough games,” O’Sullivan said. “Like I said, I don’t want to understate the depth, but at the end of the day, we’ve had other teams that we’ve been deep as well. And we’ll figure it out.”