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What went wrong with Florida baseball in 2021?

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

There were warning signs with Florida baseball season all year, but nobody expected this. 

Kevin O'Sullivan photo courtesy of Florida athletics. 

Florida's Kevin O'Sullivan sat still in the Florida dugout as South Alabama's Kaleb DeLaTorre and Andrew Bates led off the Jaguars' seventh inning with home runs to right. An inning earlier, O'Sullivan had been anything but calm, frustrated over a called time out that negated a South Alabama ground-out that would have resulted in an out but instead, ended in a walk. 

Two hitters later, USA's Ethan Wilson fouled out. Had the ground-out stood, that would have ended the inning. Instead, the Jaguars strung together 10 consecutive hits--nine of them singles--in a 10-run inning that basically eliminated any chance of a Gator comeback given the 14-1 deficit at that time.

And maybe if that goes differently, the Gators could have won the battle. Everyone approaches a three-run game differently than they do a 13-run contest. 

But in all likelihood, Florida had already lost the war when it pulled starter Hunter Barco--its best starter--with two outs in the first and a 2-0 deficit, and brought in closer Jack Leftwich. It's hard to fight out of the loser's bracket anyway, and doubly hard to do so without your best arms, and with Tommy Mace having thrown 71 pitches in a loss on Friday, it was hard to envision a scenario in which the Gators' run in their own regional would end well. 

And so that's how this ends for the preseason No. 1 team, playing its debut season in a brand-new ballpark, nonetheless. 

Still, this is Florida, and while Vanderbilt had probably earned the distinction of the country's top program given its dominating national title season in 2019 and the expectation that the Commodores would be a top-five team coming into this year, that distinction wasn't clear, and the Gators had a chance to either take that claim for themselves this season or at least muddy the waters. And if we'd like to take away the recency bias that comes with a disaster like this weekend's, maybe the Gators--who have been to seven College World Series, compared to Vandy's four, during O'Sullivan's tenure--still belong in the conversation. 

But it's hard to have that talk fairly now against the wreckage of the Gainesville Regional, so let's talk instead about that.

Pitching and defense. Those have always been staples of Florida O'Sullivan's clubs. And it was a decidedly un-Florida-like season in that regard. 

While I wouldn't have seen this coming--and especially not after the way Florida looked in last week's Southeastern Conference tournament--the Gators' failures in those regards, were there for anyone who had eyes to see all year. Florida lost its season-opening series to Miami--which it has dominated for years--in that new park thanks, mostly, to those things. 

February baseball should usually be taken with a grain of salt, and so most of us did that. But take a look at the stat sheets here and here and tell me where that ever got fixed. Florida was awful up the middle most of the year (except Jud Fabian, of course) and when you look up in Hoover and suddenly the team's starting catcher is suddenly taking a crash course on playing third during Hoover, that's not ideal.   

As for pitching, while Barco has been terrific lately, it's telling that a freshman was UF's most dependable starter. And while it's understandable why the Gators moved Leftwich to the bullpen given how he started SEC play, Florida's answer was to trade one problem for another, eventually moving Franco Aleman out of the pen and watching him struggle in his own way.

Much was made of the Gators' "getting right" at midseason, but that five-weekend stretch, aside from Vanderbilt, came against non-NCAA-tournament teams Missouri, Auburn, Kentucky and Georgia. Against everyone else, Florida was just ordinary, going a pedestrian 11-15 against RPI top-50 teams

Despite the Gators' consensus top ranking to start the season, we always knew our evaluations of everyone should have been taken lightly given the near-complete lack of context coming into this one, with all conference seasons and most summer ball eliminated due to 2020's Covid-19 pandemic. 

And now the question is this: Where is this program? O'Sullivan's name is frequently connected to other jobs, and there's been a lot of talk connecting him to the LSU vacancy. It's lazy to write that O'Sullivan's leaving would be our answer because the truth is that the Gators were a national power before O'Sullivan and probably would be without him, especially given the new facilities on top of what was already an easy place to which to recruit.  

But there is one thing worth mentioning: While the Gators flashed enough in an abbreviated 2020 to get that preseason top ranking, Florida also struggled through an un-Gator-like 2019 in their last full season. And that, coupled with that also-underachieving campaign, is enough to plant a small seed of doubt until next February.