By Mark Long
AP Sports Writer
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan stared at the stats in front of him and picked out the only number he wanted to talk about.
“The theme I keep hearing is about things we can’t do,” he said. “I’m sitting here and looking at our record, and we’re 48-17. We do a lot of things well.”
Hitting isn’t high on the list.
The Gators are batting .262 as a team, ranking 205th in the country and the lowest average of any team O’Sullivan has fielded in his decade in Gainesville. Florida has two starters over .300 — Ryan Larson and Nelson Maldonado are at .304 — and have less than half as many home runs (50) as NCAA leader Wake Forest (106). Maybe even more telling: The Gators have scored two or fewer runs 20 times — nearly a third of their games.
So how did O’Sullivan get Florida to the College World Series for the third consecutive year and the sixth time in the last eight seasons?
The Gators have three quality starters, a dominant closer and enough situational relievers to make it through college baseball’s most grueling tournament. That mound mastery has helped offset the team’s struggles at the plate.
“When you run our three starters out there and you’ve got a guy at the end and you’ve got a couple of other guys out there in the middle, then you just figure out ways to win,” O’Sullivan said. “I think people put too much emphasis on how you win. The bottom line as a coach is you try to look at your club and look at your personnel and say, ‘How are we going to get this thing done?'”
Florida begins its quest for the baseball program’s first national championship Sunday night against TCU in Omaha, Nebraska. There’s little doubt the Gators’ chances start and end on the hill with starters Alex Faedo, Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, reliever Tyler Dyson and closer Michael Byrne.
“Not every game is perfect,” Dyson said. “We’re finding ways to win, and that’s exactly how our season’s been. It makes it a lot more sweeter that we’re still finding ways to win even with all these adversities.”
Here’s a look at the team’s top arms:
• Faedo: The hard-throwing right-hander has been Florida’s No. 1 starter all year and one of the best in the Southeastern Conference. Faedo went 7-2 with a 2.55 ERA and led the SEC with 135 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings. He pitched two scoreless innings in relief and picked up his first career save against Wake Forest in the super regional Monday, not long after the Detroit Tigers selected him with the 18th overall pick in the MLB draft. The CWS will be his final stint with the Gators.
• Singer: A second-round draft pick by Toronto out of high school, the sophomore right-hander is expected to be Florida’s ace and a first-rounder in 2018. He is 7-5 with a 3.29 ERA and led the SEC with 112 innings pitched. He made headlines during the super regional when a profanity-laced video of him angrily walking off the mound during a rain delay went viral.
• Kowar: The team’s No. 3 starter led the league in wins, going 12-0 with a 4.00 ERA in 17 starts. He doesn’t have as much velocity or control as Faedo or Singer, but he got enough run support (7 a game) that he has remained undefeated.
• Dyson: Inconsistent much of the year, the freshman emerged as a viable option in the super regional by throwing seven scoreless innings. He allowed two hits and struck out 10, and likely will be one of the first relievers out of the bullpen in Omaha.
• Byrne: The sophomore set a school record with 16 saves and is a big reason the Gators lead the nation with 18 one-run victories. He has 84 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings to go along with a 1.83 ERA.
Throw in relievers Nick Horvath and Frank Rubio, and Florida has the depth to make a run — and maybe even make up for a lack of offense.
“Our starting pitching is so strong, and with the layout of the games, I feel like that works heavily in our favor,” said first baseman JJ Schwarz, a junior making his third consecutive trip to Omaha. “I feel really confident going into this thing.”