Photo: Nathan Hickey; Credit: University of Florida athletic association
The storylines for Florida Gators athletics are reaching their peak as 2021 enters into March.
With basketball approaching tournament play, Arik Gilbert announcing his short-lived run with Florida has come to an end, Dan Mullen's squad in the midst of spring practice, gymnastics grabbing the No.1 rankings in all events fresh off an SEC Championship victory, and a plethora of sports currently in the heart of their schedules, these hectic times in collegiate sports can lead to oversight of early season play.
Specifically when it pertains to baseball.
However, possessing one of the most talented teams in the country with a legitimate opportunity to reign as contenders in Omaha as the year progresses, Kevin O'Sullivan's squad is an important one to keep tabs on.
As a result, AllGators' will be starting a weekly roundup series recapping the previous week of baseball's games and storylines from those contests, starting with the opening stretch against Miami, North Florida and Samford.
Entering the season as the unanimous number one squad in the nation, the Florida Gators baseball program came into the year with high expectations and an opportunity to prove themselves against the No. 21 team in Miami on opening weekend.
Getting off to a hot start in the batter's box, Gators catcher Nathan Hickey, who sat at third in the rotation, took his first pitch of the season yard to break in the brand new Florida ballpark in style, kicking off a spectacular showing from the Jacksonville (Fla.) native in the early portion of the year.
Receiving runs from Hickey (1), Jacob Young (1) – who has accounted for a hit in 26 straight games – Josh Rivera (2), Jordan Carrion (1), Kris Armstrong (1) and Kendrick Calilao (1), Florida produced a 7-5 victory that was capped off by a Franco Aleman save despite four runs in the ninth inning for the Hurricanes to give the Gators ace in Tommy Mace his first win of a long season.
Looking to build upon the opening night momentum, Florida returned to the diamond last Saturday, taking an early 8 to 3 lead going into the seventh inning. Once again, the offensive end gave UF a comfortable lead going into the closing stretch but struggled to maintain the margin due to the bullpen's struggles. Allowing five total runs in the final three innings (three coming in the ninth), Florida was forced to enter extra innings with a hot streaking Miami team.
Two runs in the top of the thirteenth put Miami up two scores and despite a comeback attempt made by the top of the Gators batting lineup that saw Kirby McMullen bring in Jud Fabian for the score in the second to last at-bat on the day, Florida fell 10-9 for a shocking loss that would derail their weekend.
Dropping the series as a whole with an 8-6 loss in the deciding matchup with Miami, the Gators had questions to be answered where their pitching was concerned, one that coach O'Sullivan was frustrated with.
"We had to use [Ben] Specht and Franco Friday night, which we should not have. It's kind of like a domino effect. When one guy doesn't do his job, it puts more pressure on the bullpen. Then when one guy doesn't do his job Friday, it affects Saturday," O'Sullivan said following the final game against Miami. "We didn't pitch smart."
As a result, Florida's number one ranking would be short-lived, as they would drop to No. 6 according to DI Baseball Rankings.
Traveling to Jacksonville on Tuesday, Feb. 23, the Gators attempted to rebound against UNF in a home-and-home series with the Ospreys. Seeing 39 at-bats in the first road game of the year, Florida continued their success on the offensive end to account for 13 hits and nine runs in a 9-6 win.
In their return to Gainesville, Florida produced much of the same, sweeping the North Florida team with an 8-3 triumph in a game that saw a display of magic from soon-to-be MLB Draft prospect Fabian throughout the night as the Gators accomplished their mission to bounce back from an underwhelming opening series.
"I thought we bounced back tonight. Only thing I'm concerned about is our team playing good. I thought tonight was the cleanest game we've played."
Turning around to take on a hugely understaffed Samford team in terms of the talent gap, the Gators were facing a three-run game in the bottom of the sixth. Stepping up to the plate for UF was none other than the man who continues to be the first in the record books inside the new ballpark.
Sending the first hit upon the stadium's unveiling for a home run, Hickey continued to prove huge for the Gators' offensive prowess early on in the year against Samford.
With the bases loaded on an 0-1 count, Hickey took a swing at a fastball down the middle of the plate, sending it sailing towards left-center where the ball would escape over the wall and provide the Gators with a game-shifting four runs on the scoreboard.
Hickey's reoccurring bombs have provided the Gators with excitement when he steps into the batter's box, culminating with this grand slam to pull away from the Bulldogs with a defining moment of the series as a whole in a game they would dominate to win 18-2.
Florida would continue forward to produce three well-rounded games against the Bulldogs – excluding a sixth-inning surge in the closing matchup that put Samford in striking distance – to capture five straight victories and head into week two action at 6-2 on the year.
UF will enter a stretch that allows them to continue knocking off the rust from an extended hiatus due to Covid-19 derailing their efforts last season. Averaging over nine runs per game, the offensive firepower the squad possesses has proven to be the deciding factor in a number of games this season.
For Florida to continue growing, consistency on the defensive end and in the bullpen will reign as the number one priority for O'Sullivan's team going forward. As he insinuated, it comes down to pitching smart.
In the upcoming week, the Gators look to continue their winning ways in a one-game bout versus FAU at home on Wednesday, March 3 before hosting Florida A&M for a three-game series on March 5-7.