Getting to Omaha wasn’t easy for the 2018 Florida baseball team.
Staying there will be even harder.
Defending national champion Florida put itself in a bind following its 6-3 loss to Texas Tech late Sunday night in its College World Series opener. The Gators (47-20) will resume play on Tuesday afternoon against Texas (42-22) needing four straight wins to return to the CWS championship series for the second straight year.
Florida has gone 5-0 in NCAA Tournament elimination games since the beginning of the 2017 season, but will have no margin for error the rest of the week. The last team to lose its opening College World Series game and win a national title was South Carolina in 2010.
Junior righty Jackson Kowar (9-5, 3.24 ERA) will start for the Gators against the Longhorns, who lost 11-5 to Arkansas earlier Sunday afternoon.
“We’re going to have to have Jackson pitch really good on Tuesday,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said following the loss Sunday night. “We’ll have to take it one day at a time. And ultimately we’ll have to have some guys step up because we’ve got to win some more games here. But it’s certainly doable.”
How much more O’Sullivan will shuffle the lineup remains to be seen. Senior captain JJ Schwarz, in his first game back in close to a month after breaking his hand, was shaky at first base during the Texas Tech loss. Schwarz misplayed a grounder that would up being scored a two-RBI single by Gabe Holt, which put the Red Raiders ahead to stay 3-1. Schwarz also did not have his foot on the bag when catcher Brady Smith fired a throw to first while attempting to get Texas Tech runner Cody Farhat out following a strikeout on a wild pitch to start the ninth inning. Farhat scored Texas Tech’s final run on an RBI single from Holt.
Schwarz was playing just his eighth game at first base on the season and first game at first since May 13 against Georgia. He’s started 45 games at catcher this season, but O’Sullivan opted to play him at first base due to concerns about how his hand would hold up for nine innings behind the plate. Schwarz was not inserted at designated hitter because that is the regular spot for junior Nelson Maldonado, who belted a two-run homer Sunday. Maldonado could play outfield, but that would mean Florida would need to bench one of its three starting outfielders, left fielder Austin Langworthy, center fielder Nick Horvath or right fielder Wil Dalton.
At the plate, Schwarz went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. That dropped Schwarz to .319 on the season with 12 home runs and 46 RBIs.
“He hasn’t played in a while,” O’Sullivan said. “The first at-bat was pretty good. He hit the ball to the warning track the other way. He had a good approach. We’re here because he’s one of the main reasons why we’re here. And he felt like he could play tonight and I wasn’t going to juggle the whole lineup. Just put him right in there and see what happens.
“We did that a couple of years ago with Pete Alonso and he had a really good tournament. So I’m just happy that JJ went out there for his team and gave a great effort.”
Schwarz wasn’t the only Gator to struggle in the field Sunday night. Shortstop Deacon Liput had a throwing error, just his fifth of the season, which extended Texas Tech’s two-run fifth inning. Langworthy misplayed a fly ball to deep left field in the eighth inning.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” O’Sullivan said of the defensive problems. “I do know when we start struggling defensively we start doing some more live defense during practice. Actually we do it every day. We hadn’t done that up until the last part of the year, but once we start struggling defensively we tried to play some games, you know, some defensive live stuff during practice and our defense got back on track. But obviously tonight it hurt us a little more.”
Offensively, Florida will be looking to jump-start a lineup that went 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position and 1 for 15 with runners on base against Texas Tech. Florida has scored three runs or less in each of its last three games.
“We went through all the pitchers,” O’Sullivan said. “We knew exactly what they were going to do — start with their lefty and then go to (Ryan) Shetter and then go to their little right-hander there with a good arm. We were prepared. We went through everybody and they just executed some pitches.”
What: College World Series elimination game
Who: Texas (42-22) vs. Florida (47-20)
When: 3:38 p.m.
Where: TD Ameritrade Park Omaha (Neb.)
Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM
Pitching matchup: UF Jackson Kowar (9-5, 3.24 ERA) vs. Texas sophomore RHP Blair Henley (6-6, 3.32 ERA)