OMAHA, Neb. – To get here, the Gators took a road never traveled in their previous 10 trips to the College World Series. They faced elimination in both the regional and super regional and won each time.
To stay here, they must do something they have done just once: win an elimination game in the CWS after losing to the same team the previous game. The Gators overcame a loss to Arizona State in 2005 by defeating the Wildcats the next game to advance to the championship series.
Should we have expected anything less of this 2017 Gators baseball team?
“I think our backs have been against the wall the whole year to be honest with you,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said following Friday night’s 9-2 loss to Texas Christian. “We’ve just had to battle and scratch and claw and fight for everything.”
Gotta brush it off and come back tomorrow.
Rematch at 8 PM on ESPN. pic.twitter.com/7cBypXZx6G
— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) June 24, 2017
In the Gainesville Regional, the Gators suffered a stunning loss to Bethune-Cookman – UF was 31-0 all-time against the Wildcats – and rebounded the next day in a winner-take-all game.
In the Gainesville Super Regional, the Gators suffered a devastating walk-off home run by Wake Forest on their home field. A few hours later, they celebrated a Game 3 win over the Demon Deacons and a third consecutive trip to Omaha.
If you are squeamish, this team is probably not for you. But it’s been a wild ride for those who live on every pitch.
Gators starter Jackson Kowar provided a thrill for Florida fans early Friday night in his first CWS start. Kowar struck out seven of the first eight Horned Frogs he faced and was dominating until a two-out single by shortstop Ryan Merrill. Austen Wade followed with an RBI double that went over the head of left fielder Austin Langworthy, and Zach Humphreys connected for an RBI double that Langworthy had trouble tracking in the sun-splashed sky.
Just like that, Florida was behind. The Gators quickly erased TCU’s lead in the bottom of the third inning on Mike Rivera’s solo home run and an RBI double by Dalton Guthrie.
However, Kowar ran into more two-out trouble in the fifth when Josh Watson stepped to the plate with two on. Watson lifted a fly ball to center field that Nick Horvath misjudged. Horvath broke in at first, then backpedaled only to have the ball bounce off his glove for a two-run triple.
The Gators never recovered as TCU — which has won three consecutive elimination games after losing to Florida 3-0 on Sunday night — forced a decisive winner-take-all matchup on Saturday night.
The Gators will turn to ace Alex Faedo, who struck out 11 and allowed only two hits against TCU six days ago.
“Nothing’s come easy to this team,” O’Sullivan said. “And if you told me we had one game to win and you got Faedo on the mound and [Tyler] Dyson, who has emerged, and [Michael] Byrne fresh, I’ll take my chances.”
But O’Sullivan knows Faedo can’t do it alone. The offense needs to produce more than the five hits and two runs it mustered Friday against Horned Frogs starter Mitchell Traver and three relievers.
Rivera is confident they can. The Gators are batting .200 (19-for-95) with 27 strikeouts in three games here.
“I don’t know what causes [our slump],” Rivera said. “Tomorrow is just another day. I don’t really care what happened in the past. Doesn’t really matter. Everyone has one loss now. We just need to play better. We’re still breathing, so that’s good.”
The Florida-TCU winner will face Saturday’s LSU-Oregon State winner starting Monday night in the CWS championship final.
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 24, 2017
Not even a career-high 11 strikeouts by Kowar prevented the Gators from dropping their first game here Friday. Kowar lost his first game of the season after 12 consecutive wins, giving up six hits and four runs over five innings.
“My pitch count got kind of high,” said Kowar, who threw 94 pitches, 62 for strikes. “I wish I could have gone deeper in the game. Kind of wasted a couple of pitches here and there. I think I should have made more competitive pitches. But at the end of the day it’s not about strikeouts, it’s just about outs.”
It’s all about Saturday night for the Gators now. Win and stay, lose and go home.
O’Sullivan said he will probably tinker the lineup to see if that helps players feel more comfortable. Otherwise, the recipe for success will be the same as all season.
“If I’m going to go to battle with one more game on the line for the season, Alex Faedo is my guy,” he said. “The whole year has been [about]starting pitching. If it gives up three or less, three or four runs, we’ve got a chance.”