Before the season opens, UF baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan has some decisions remaining when it comes to his roster — still, expectations are high as ever.
The Gators, picked by the SEC’s 14 coaches to finish second in the league behind Vanderbilt, open the season Friday with a weekend series against Marshall starting at 6:30 p.m., giving fans their first glimpse at the final Florida team to play at Alfred A. McKethan Stadium before the program’s new state-of-the-art ballpark opens in June.
But first, the team expects a bounce-back campaign in 2020 after missing out on the College World Series for the first time since 2014.
“We’re excited. It never gets old, obviously. It’s a new year, new players, a whole different roster,” said O’Sullivan, before pointing out there’s no dearth of talent in the SEC. “The league’s as good as it’s ever been, especially from a pitching (standpoint). We’re going to take it one day at a time.”
After losing considerable talent from the 2017 and 2018 teams, the freshman-laden Gators struggled when it came to SEC play last season, as they managed just 13 wins in 30 tries.
It marked the fewest wins in conference play in O’Sullivan’s 12 seasons at UF; the Gators won one more SEC contest during the 2013 campaign – the lone sub-.500 finish under O’Sullivan’s watch – than they did in 2019.
While motivation certainly isn’t an issue at Florida, O’Sullivan does expect the memories of those lumps to be lessons for this unit.
“The bottom line is we did just enough to get into the NCAA Regional,” O’Sullivan said. “There obviously were some tough spots for us, especially on the mound. But there were also some areas that were positive, and we’re trying to draw from that more than the negative part. There’s not many programs that have been to a regional 13 years in a row, so, obviously our expectation is to get to the World Series and contend for national championships.”
Suffice to say, the players know that as a collective they didn’t live up to internal standards last season, even if not everyone was to blame for the team’s faults. A program that had become accustomed to churning out professional pitchers on a regular basis instead saw itself rocked and rattled in 2019.
Considering Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwitch, the team’s Friday and Saturday starters on the mound, respectively, are draft-eligible after this season, the pressure is on.
“We’re going to need a couple of these guys to step up. Tommy and Jack are going to have to pitch up to their capabilities, and Nick Pogue looks like he’ll be our Sunday starter. He’s been outstanding, hasn’t given up a run — knock on wood — this whole spring,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s earned it, and we’ve got a couple sophomores that have to make a jump, but they’re certainly capable.”
Aside from the returning players, the Gators are high on left-handed graduate transfer pitcher Trey Van Der Weide, a native of Longwood who joined the program after spending four seasons with the University of South Carolina Upstate Spartans, and freshman Hunter Barco, regarded nationally as the top left-handed pitcher to emerge from the 2019 class.
“He’s just really, really reliable,” O’Sullivan said of Van Der Weide. “We’ve got more options out of the bullpen, and I’m sure everyone’s heard of Hunter Barco from Jacksonville. He’s going to be one of the special ones that comes through here.”
And then there’s Kirby McMullen and Austin Langworthy, the two seniors projected to make Florida’s Day 1 line-up – for good reason, too.
Langworthy, who totalled 10 home runs and 43 runs batted in last season, overcame early struggles last season to become one of UF’s more consistent options at the plate, while McMullen is regarded alongside Langworthy as one of the team’s leaders in the dugout following the departures of Blake Reese and Nelson Maldonado, someone who can be counted on to point the team’s younger players in the right direction.
“Of course Langworthy was (a leader) last year, he was a huge help to all of us,” sophomore right fielder Jacob Young said. “And we’ve got Kirby, who, behind the scenes more than you guys have seen, he’s always been a leader. He’s kind of a positive influence, he’s been everywhere. He’s helped us out in the dugout, all that. He’s going to be huge.”
O’Sullivan is counting on each player on the roster to play their role this season — nothing more, and nothing less.
“You can have all the depth you want, but it’s really the main guys who need to perform up to their capabilities,” he said. “So, hopefully they will.”