There are enough reasons to think that No. 1 overall national seed Florida will shake its recent funk while hosting this weekend’s NCAA Gainesville Regional.
For starters, Florida ace righty Brady Singer is set to return after a two-week absence due to a hamstring strain, slated to start Saturday against either second seed Jacksonville or third seed Florida Atlantic. Secondly, the Gators are back home, where they are 28-6 this season.
Still, Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan is always looking for ways to get through to his team, both physically and mentally. So O’Sullivan placed a phone call to a friend and former colleague who was happy to help.
That friend and colleague, former Florida and current Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan, addressed the Gators on Wednesday in advance of UF’s regional opener on Friday at noon against four-seed Columbia. Donovan’s message — all teams go through adversity at some point during a season, and how a team responds defines its legacy.
“He said you could either come out and face that adversity or you could shut it down,” Singer said. “I didn’t know he was the loud, fiery guy that he is. But it was really incredible. I think he really helped out the team.”
O’Sullivan said he came up with the idea to call Donovan based on the parallels between his current team and UF’s 2006-07 national title basketball team. Like this year’s Gator baseball squad, Donovan’s 2006-07 team was defending a national championship. Donovan’s 2006-07 Gators lost two straight games after clinching an SEC regular-season title. O’Sullivan’s current Gator team has lost six of its last seven after clinching an SEC regular-season championship.
“There were a lot of similarities between both teams and just decided to reach out to Billy and obviously he was in town and it worked out,” O’Sullivan said. “I think it was really helpful.”
Of course, it will take more than words for the Gators (42-17) to get back on track. Some problem areas have arisen during UF’s recent 1-6 stretch. Florida’s bullpen ERA is 13.51 during that span, while the Gators have committed 10 errors in their last seven games.
“We’re going to respond well to that,” Florida third baseman Jonathan India said. “This team is a great defensive team and we’ve showed it in past years, even this year. It’s just you can’t be perfect.”
O’Sullivan said he plans to start freshman righty Tommy Mace in Friday’s regional opener against Columbia, with Singer starting Saturday and junior righty Jackson Kowar starting on Sunday. Mace (4-0) was one of the few bright spots during UF’s 1-6 stretch, picking up his fourth win of the season after giving up just one earned run in seven innings in UF’s 4-3 SEC Tournament win over LSU. Mace has allowed just two earned runs in 13.1 innings over his last two starts.
“Tommy has been pretty good his last two starts and Brady, obviously, hopefully, we play up to our capabilities on Friday, I think Brady gives us the best chance to win on Saturday,” O’Sullivan said.
The return of Singer, who was named Baseball America’s national player of the year Thursday, should provide the Gators even more confidence.
“That’s our ace,” India said. “That’s our guy that we count on and we lean on him, so we’re very excited to see him pitch again.”
While Singer is back, the return of senior catcher and team captain JJ Schwarz, who broke his hand on a foul tip during the Mississippi State series, remains more uncertain.
“It really boils down to how much pain tolerance,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t think he can do anything worse to it, but the fact of the matter is, he’s got a broken bone. And I think it’s just day to day. I’m not one to continue to ask him, how do you feel, how do you feel. I know he wants to play, but that will be up to him and the trainer. If he can go this weekend great, if he can’t, then somebody is going to have to man up. It’s that simple.”
Freshman Cal Greenfield and junior Jonah Girand have been splitting catching duties since Schwarz went down. Girand has been catching in games when Kowar pitches.
“I was really, really pleased with how Jonah caught,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t think Jackson is very easy to catch with his stuff and his ball sinks, he’s got a good breaking ball and his changeup is not easy to handle. But I thought Jonah did a really, really good job behind the plate. Those two guys are certainly capable.”
NCAA Gainesville Regional
At Alfred A. McKethan Stadium
Columbia (20-28) at Florida (42-17), Noon, AM-850, 98.1-FM, ESPN3
Jacksonville (39-19) vs. FAU (40-17), 6:30 p.m., ESPN3
SCOUTING THE GAINESVILLE REGIONAL
Record: 39-19 (14-6 Atlantic Sun Conference)
How Qualified: At-large berth
Key Pitchers: Chris Gau, jr., RHP, (8-3, 2.65 ERA), Tyler Santana, so. RHP, (10-1, 3.29 ERA), Chris Mauloni, fr., rhp (3-2, 2.53 ERA, 20 saves)
Key Hitters: Scott Dubrule, so. SS (.358, 0 HR, 52 RBIs), Chris Lehane, r-sr., 2B ( .330, 1 HR, 35 RBIs), Angel Camacho, jr., 1B (.328, 5 HR, 56 RBIs)
Fun Fact: Daniel Murphy was a former Jacksonville University standout before going on to a nine-year Major League career, including seven years with the New York Mets and the last two seasons with the Washington Nationals.
Record: 40-17-1 (19-8-1 in Conference USA)
How Qualified: At-large berth
Key Pitchers: Jake Miednik, sr., LHP (7-1, 3.05 ERA), Vince Coletti, jr., RHP (2-4, 4.62 ERA), Zach Schneider, jr., (6-1, 2.08 ERA, 15 saves)
Key Hitters: David Miranda, r-sr., OF (.321, 9 HR, 45 RBIs), Tyler Frank, jr., SS ( .315, 13 HR, 34 RBIs), Pedro Pages, so. C (.312, 4 HR, 31 RBIs)
Fun Fact: FAU is making its fourth regional appearance in the past six seasons and 13th regional trip in program history.
Record: 20-28 (13-8 Ivy League)
How Qualified: Swept Yale in two games to win Ivy League Championship series
Key Pitchers: Harrison Egly, sr., RHP (3-3, 3.86 ERA), Lucas Hall, jr., LHP (3-0, 1.80 ERA, 4 saves)
Key Hitters: Liam McGill, so., C (.319, 6 HR, 30 RBIs), Joe Engel, jr., SS (316, 1 HR, 29 RBIs), Chandler Bengston, jr., 1B/OF (.257, 10 HR, 31 RBIs)
Fun Fact: Columbia University has produced 14 Major League players, including the Iron Horse, former Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig.