Florida Gators baseball 2022 was the return of the culture club | David Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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It’s been a couple of days, and there’s still no sign that UF plans to put a retractable roof on Condron Family Ballpark.

If only the stadium had a lid, Florida baseball might have advanced to the Super Regional.

If only the Gators had brought in Brandon Sproat to pitch the final two innings, they would have held off Oklahoma.

If only they could have gotten one more hit in the seventh inning, they would have had an insurmountable lead.

All those ifs have been ricocheting through fans’ heads since Florida’s season abruptly ended Monday night. But as Kevin O’Sullivan tried to process it all, he hit on the most appropriate takeaway to UF’s 2022 season.

“In a couple of days when we step back from this, you know, I’m proud of this team,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

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An early end, but a good sign for the future

Well, it’s not quite that simple. Any postmortem would have to include how Florida failed to make a Super Regional for the third straight season. That’s the longest drought in O’Sullivan’s 15 seasons. 

It would have to note how Monday’s loss in the regional was a microcosm of the past four months. Live by freshman pitching, die by freshman pitching.

That helped turn the season into a long, strange, frustrating, exhilarating but ultimately unsatisfying trip. There have been more of those than not lately.

If we’re still having this conversation in 2023, it’d be fair to question if the program has fallen into a Mike White kind of rut. But if the last few weeks are any indication, the malaise isn’t going to last.

“Your whole program is built around culture,” O’Sullivan said. “I think this is a big step in building back that culture and getting back where we want to be — playing for a national championship.”

The unspoken assumption there is that the culture that produced four straight College World Series appearances and a national championship was splintering.

It’s hard to judge in-house turmoil and off-field distractions. But it all seemed to crescendo in last year’s finale, a 19-1 beatdown by South Alabama.

Everybody just wanted that season over and done with. This year’s last stand had a different feel.

Did rain save the Sooners? 

Raindrops, for one.

Freshman pitcher (or is that redundant?) Brandon Neely was cruising with a 2-1 lead after 6.2 innings. Then lightning flashed, thunder boomed and fans were treated to a 5-hour-and-33-minute rain delay.

Did Mother Nature save the Sooners? Oklahoma’s ace starter Jake Bennett pitched Friday, but coach Skip Johnson brought him in for the final two innings.

Sproat wanted to do the same for Florida, but O’Sullivan didn’t want to risk an arm injury. He went with redshirt freshman Ryan Slater, who’d had a lot of nice relief outings.

Monday wasn’t one of them. Instead of planning for the Super Regional, O’Sullivan had to start looking back. He brought up the change in culture and was asked what that really meant.

It meant a team that almost won the SEC tournament after starting 6-12 in league play.

It meant a mid-season lineup shakeup that everybody bought into.

It meant surviving the loss of the entire starting rotation from the first series, including ace Hunter Barco.

It meant Sproat and Neely and Slater and other freshmen figuring out how to pitch like veterans.

It meant forgotten freshman Carsten Finnvold producing a 27-out relief gem against Oklahoma that got Florida into the Regional final.

“One of the best outings in program history,” O’Sullivan said.

It meant Wyatt Langford. He had four at-bats in 2021. He batted .355 and tied the school record with 26 home runs in 2022.

The last one came about 9 p.m. Monday. Roughly eight hours earlier, Langford slid head-first into second base and had two teeth almost knocked out.

During the rain delay, the trainer told O’Sullivan it might be a good time to get Langford to a dentist to repair the damage.

“(Lanford) was sitting right behind me the whole game and never said a word,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s tough. He’s tough.”

Culture meant resiliency, maturation, eagerness and no egos.

“They were selfless,” O’Sullivan said. “They paid attention and they were really a tight-knit group. If you followed us closely, you'd see that they are really close.”

You could see it when the final game was over. Instead of a sense of relief that the season was over, there were hugs and tears and a feeling that it ended too soon.

“It was real,” O’Sullivan said. “They are real, raw emotions.”

History will show the Gators finished 42-24. They didn’t go to the Super Regional, much less the CWS.

But history might also show the old culture is back. Without that, the program won’t really go anywhere.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley

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