Top-ranked Gators open against rival Miami in new ballpark

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
Florida Ballpark, a $65 million stadium across campus that took 16 months to complete, will make its debut Friday.

Opening day is always an exciting time, but this year holds special significance for the Florida baseball program. 

Today's opener (which has been moved back to a 5:42 p.m. start because of the weather conditions) will be the first game in more than 11 months for the Gators, whose promising 2020 season abruptly ended last March due to COVID-19. The nation’s unanimous preseason No. 1 team returns to the diamond in its new $65 million stadium, Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field. 

“Every year, you’re excited about playing your opening night,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “But obviously, with the new stadium and the long layoff, it is a little bit different.”

So is the opponent. 

Florida’s annual series with Miami is usually reserved for the second weekend, but the in-state rivals open against each other this year. The Gators have won 33 of their last 41 meetings against UM, including last season’s sweep in Coral Gables. 

“Miami is always a big series for us,” UF pitcher Ben Specht said. “Not bigger than any other game because every game is big. You treat it the same, but it’s always a huge series against Miami.” 

Specht and fellow sophomore Nathan Hickey both compared the Miami series to the rivalry with Florida State, which beat the Gators in their final outing at McKethan Stadium. The 2-0 loss to the Seminoles snapped Florida’s 16-game winning streak to start last season and the program’s 11-game winning streak over FSU. 

“The offseason was really long,” Hickey said. “We’ve been wanting to play since the season last year got canceled. It’s really egging on everybody that we want to get the whole series started against Miami. 

“We’ve been waiting for this for awhile. It’s always a big series, just like FSU vs. Florida. Two big rivals going at it. Big heavy arms on each side, so it’s going to be a dog fight no matter what.” 

The Gators return the majority of their talent from last season, including starting pitchers Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich and Hunter Barco. Miami, meanwhile, lost its top three starters from a year ago and now turns to junior Daniel Federman as the Friday ace. Standout freshmen Alejandro Rosario (Saturday) and Victor Mederos (Sunday) will be the weekend starters. 

“We don’t know a lot about them,” O’Sullivan said of Rosario and Mederos. “It’s going to be a great experience for those two young pitchers. And obviously they’re very talented. Miami is very fortunate to get them to school.

“I think playing Miami is obviously big for our program and their program because we’re rivals, but I don’t think in the long term of things it’s going to make a difference in how either team finishes come towards the end of the year.”

The end goal for the top-ranked Gators is not just making it to Omaha, but claiming the program’s second national championship since 2017 given their loaded roster. Despite that potential and the high expectations heading into 2021, O’Sullivan hopes his message to the players this week hit home. 

“We are not a team that can just roll balls out there and win. That’s not going to happen. And that’s been kind of the message,” O’Sullivan said. “I like the fact that we’ve got a lot of experience and with that from a coaching standpoint comes a trust factor maybe. But I’m cautiously optimistic. I certainly don’t feel more comfortable right now than I do in any other season as far as trying to predict what it’s going to look like in May and June. 

“I mean, we’ve got a lot of work to do. During this preseason we’ve had some practices and some intra-squads that really have not been that sharp. We’ve had plenty that have been, but we’re not perfect. My job and our job as a staff is to keep our guys grounded and understand that even though we may be talented, other teams in our league and around the country, they’re right there with us.”

Notes: Pitcher Nick Pogue had Tommy John surgery Tuesday and will miss the season, O'Sullivan said Thursday. ... Only 1,700 fans will be allowed inside for home games because of social distancing requirements.

Debut series

Who: No. 21 Miami vs. No. 1 Florida

When: 5:42 p.m. today, 1 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field

TV:  The game will begin on the SEC Network, then will move to SEC Network Alternate where available at 7 p.m. Also available in its entirety on SEC Network+.

Radio: 98.1-FM, AM-850

Tickets: All three games of the Miami series are sold out.