By Mark Long
Brady Singer knew the hook was coming. He paused behind the mound with two outs in the seventh inning and waited for Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan.
After a few words of encouragement from teammates, Singer handed the ball to O’Sullivan and headed to the dugout with a five-run lead. The Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year then received a long, loud, standing ovation as he exited the final home start of his college career. It was a special moment for the right-hander.
It’s also become an annual occurrence for the Gators (47-19), who have established themselves as “Pitching U” while advancing to the College World Series for the fourth straight season and seventh time in nine years.
“Obviously, we’re very talented,” O’Sullivan said.
Florida’s staff features two first-round draft picks — Singer and fellow starter Jackson Kowar — and All-American closer Michael Byrne. Throw in budding freshmen Jack Leftwich and Tommy Mace along with wild card Tyler Dyson, and the defending national champions might be as deep as anyone in the eight-team field.
Florida’s pitching prowess will be on display when it begins play in Omaha, Nebraska against Texas Tech (44-18) on Sunday.
The staff was the main reason the Gators won it all last year. Florida gave up five runs in its five wins at TD Ameritrade Park in 2017, including two shutouts against TCU.
Pitching remains the backbone of O’Sullivan’s team this time around. The Gators allowed nine runs in three regional victories and seven runs in a best-of-three super regional against Auburn.
Tigers coach Butch Thompson, whose team scored 40 times in three regional games the weekend before, summed up Florida’s pitching performance in one word: “Elite.”
“We did our best to try to match it,” he added.
Since O’Sullivan took over in Gainesville in 2007, the Gators have posted an ERA inside the top 30 nationally eight times. And that’s against the ultra-tough Southeastern Conference and with powerhouse programs Florida State and Miami always on the schedule.
The mound commitment stems from O’Sullivan, a college catcher who learned early on how to handle pitchers and take care of arms.
At Florida, he’s had 15 pitchers selected in the first four rounds of the MLB draft. Eight of those came in the last three years, including first-rounders A.J. Puk, Dane Dunning, Alex Faedo, Singer and Kowar.
Singer was selected 18th overall by Kansas City. Kowar went 33rd, also to the Royals.
The duo has been in Florida’s weekend rotation the last two years and played key roles at the 2017 CWS.
Singer won both starts in Omaha, allowing four earned runs in 14 innings, and Kowar earned his first save in a 6-1 victory against LSU in the deciding game of the best-of-three championship series.
“They both pitched on the biggest stage and they should be able to pull from that experience last year,” O’Sullivan said.
Singer is 12-1 with a 2.30 ERA in 15 starts this season. Kowar is 9-5 with a 3.24 ERA, but had his best outing in the super regional.
“The whole weekend gets started with Brady,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t want to overstate it, but when you take him out of your rotation it just disrupts all rhythm and timing.”
Singer missed three weeks with a strained left hamstring, and the Gators went into a funk. They lost six of seven games heading into the NCAA tournament.
What got them back on track? Pitching, of course.
Now, Florida needs five victories to repeat as champs.
It’s been the goal all season, and it’s finally within reach.
For this team, it’s essentially 60 feet, 6 inches away — the distance between the mound and home plate.
“If we execute our pitches, we feel like we’re good enough to get that done,” Byrne said.