College World Series: Florida's road to championship got off to bumpy start in SEC

OMAHA, Neb. — It would have been hard to forecast a championship of any kind for Florida after it got swept in its Southeastern Conference opening series at Auburn back in March.

A month later, the Gators started a run to sharing the SEC regular-season title with LSU and, ultimately, their national championship-clinching win over the Tigers on Tuesday night at the College World Series.

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“I think a lot of people counted us out,” pitcher Jackson Kowar said.

Florida lost three straight to start conference play for the first time since 2009. The Gators took two of three from LSU after the Auburn series but still were 5-6 in the SEC after losing the second game of a series against a Tennessee team that finished second to last in the league.

The Gators (52-19) then won 32 of their final 40 games and delivered the school its first national title in baseball.

“I don’t know if there was a defining moment,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “But I did sense that there was a sense of togetherness in the locker room and knowing we’ll never give up.”

O’Sullivan tinkered with the lineup to shake things up. The Gators had six different leadoff men, Jonathan India batted in all but the 9-hole, and Deacon Liput and Mike Rivera batted in seven different spots.

Florida ranked 224th out of 300 teams with a .259 batting average. Still, the Gators had a knack for getting the timely hit, drawing walks and forcing play when they got on base.

“What happens when we have pitching like we do, there’s never like a really long stretch of losses,” O’Sullivan said. “You’ll lose a game or two but then you get back on the winning side of things because your pitching is what it is. And we’ve always played good defense.”

WATCH: Go behind the scenes with Florida as it wins the 2017 CWS title

No doubt, this team will be remembered for its pitching and defense.

Alex Faedo, the CWS Most Outstanding Player, led the nation with 157 strikeouts, including 22 in two wins over TCU in Omaha. He was the only returning weekend starter this season, but Brady Singer and Kowar helped form one of the nation’s top rotations.

Michael Byrne, a midweek starter to open the season, took hold of the closer’s job and finished with a nation-leading and school-record 19 saves. Florida played 25 one-run games and, largely because of Byrne’s work, won a nation-best 19.

“That guy has been the hero this year for us,” Kowar said. “Having that guy at the end of the ‘pen is why we have so much confidence and are able to win so many one-run games. Winning got contagious for us.”

Freshmen Tyler Dyson, Garrett Milchin, Kirby McMullen and Nate Brown provided bullpen help for a team that returned only 40 percent of its innings from 2016. Dyson was at his best late in the season, throwing five strong innings against Wake Forest in super regionals and, in only his second start, six innings of three-hit ball in the national title-clinching win.

Freshman Austin Langworthy, named to the all-CWS team, took over in left field. Sophomore Nick Horvath became a valuable defensive replacement in center field in addition to pitching in relief. JJ Schwarz settled in at first base after the departure of 2016 second-round draft pick Peter Alonso.

The Gators finished eighth with a .981 fielding percentage and played the last 50 innings at the CWS without an error.

“When you go five games without making an error and you don’t beat yourself, it just makes it more difficult on the other team that you’re not giving them more outs,” O’Sullivan said. “We take pride in our defense. We take pride in how we play fundamentally.”

Faedo was the Gators’ only player taken in the first round of the 2016 Major League Baseball draft, but they also stand to lose a couple sixth-round picks in shortstop Dalton Guthrie and catcher Rivera and a seventh-round pick in catcher Mark Kolozsvary. Pitcher Frank Rubio, second baseman Liput and Schwarz were taken in late rounds.

With Singer and Kowar coming back and Dyson projected to be a weekend starter, the Gators will be strong on the mound again.

Depending on who signs pro contracts, four or five everyday players should return.

“I think Florida baseball is in great shape right now,” O’Sullivan said.

This article was written by Eric Olson from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCredpublisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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