BASEBALL

Five storylines to follow as Florida baseball hosts NCAA regional in Gainesville

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

Florida baseball’s run to the SEC championship game resulted in a No. 13 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Condron Ballpark serving as host site for an NCAA regional round. 

Florida (39-22) will compete with Central Michigan, Liberty, and Oklahoma, with the winner advancing to face the winner of the Blacksburg Regional at Virginia Tech. Three teams will see their season come to a close at Florida’s newly renamed ballpark, and the Gators have their work cut out for them if they hope to be the last team standing when the weekend concludes.

Here are five things to watch at the Gainesville Regional. 

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Revenge against Liberty?

Brandon Sproat (8) starts for the Gators in Game 2 against Arkansas, April 8, 2022, at Florida Ballpark in Gainesville. He is scheduled to start against Central Michigan.

Florida may have an opportunity for revenge against the Liberty Flames, UF’s season-opening opponent.

After the Gators defeated Liberty in the opening game of the weekend series, UF suffered consecutive defeats to the visiting Flames, giving UF a 1-2 mark to start the regular season.

Opening weekend:Florida coach Billy Napier throws out 1st pitch at baseball

UF would later take the best of Miami and Florida State during the course of the regular season, meaning the opening weekend with Liberty marked the only non-conference series the Gators would lose the entire season.

For Florida and Liberty to meet Saturday, both teams would either have to win or lose their Friday contests against Central Michigan and Oklahoma.

It’s possible, though not guaranteed, that the Gators have an opportunity Saturday to face Liberty for the fourth time this season. 

It isn't something that's on the mind of Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan. 

"Us throwing Brandon (Sproat) kind of tells you what my thought process is: it's only Central Michigan right now," O'Sullivan said of the first game. "I hate to sound like coach-speak, but that's the truth."

That doesn't mean, however, his players aren't aware of the potential for revenge against the Flames. 

“I think we’re all kind of excited to get to play them again," Wyatt Langford said, "so we’ll see how that goes.”

Central Michigan only 40-win 4 seed

Overwhelming defeats are few and far between in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of sport, and Florida’s opponent Friday is no exception.

With a 42-17 record — three wins better than UF —  Central Michigan is the only No. 4 seed in a regional with 40 victories or more.

Of all the opponents the Gators could face Friday as host, the Chippewas have the most experience with victory this season.

"They've got a real No. 1 pitcher, they've got three guys who have double-digit stolen bases," O'Sullivan said of Central Michigan. "They defend good, they're confident, their line-up is balanced left-handed and right-handers. They've won 42 games this year. They're talented..."

If Florida hopes to defend its ballpark and secure its 17th victory in the last 22 games, it will have to defeat a team with a greater winning percentage. 

Oklahoma has streak of its own

The first game of regional action will see Liberty face an Oklahoma team that has won 10 of its previous 13 games heading into Friday’s contest.

The Sooners captured the Big 12 Tournament title with a 8-1 defeat of rival Texas, which marked the program’s first conference championship since 2013 and just the third in program history.

Oklahoma is expected to jump to the SEC prior to the 2025 season, meaning the Gators will become far more familiar with the Sooners in the not-so-distant future.

As for now, Oklahoma is a team riding a four-game winning streak, and a potential foe this weekend. 

"Oklahoma arguably should be hosting," O'Sullivan said. "Central Michigan, obviously they made a run last year in the regionals, so, but honestly all the regionals are real hard. You get to this point of the season, anybody can beat anybody."

Do any UF pitchers play a larger role?

Brandon Sproat’s elevation to ace in the absence of Hunter Barco was part of the reason the Gators were able to make the postseason, as was the impressive pitching the Gators displayed at Hoover Met Stadium. 

"I’m very blessed to be given this opportunity," Sproat said. "For me personally, I'm very happy with how much growth I’ve had. Going from the fall, looking back now from the Fall until now, and just how far I’ve come mentally, I’m very happy with myself."

Sproat helped UF avoid elimination against South Carolina with a career-high 8⅓ innings, though the Gators needed extra innings to down the Gamecocks. 

In Florida’s second contest of the SEC Tournament, UF’s Brandon Neely picked up the loss in UF’s 10-0 defeat by run-rule to Texas A&M. From there, the Gators received multiple impressive performances from Nick Ficarrotta, Carsten Finnvold, Fisher Jameson, Nick Pogue and Anthony Ursitti. 

Sproat will take the mound at 6:30 p.m. against Central Michigan (ESPN+), but the rest of the weekend may see the Gators make some changes on the mound. 

Changes in UF's batting order

Catcher BT Riopelle (15) prepares to high-five Florida centerfielder Jud Fabian (4) after Fabian hit a home run against Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala.

It’s not just in the bullpen where UF may make some strategic adjustments. Florida could also make some changes to its batting order, although it wouldn’t be as much of a surprise.

O’Sullivan moved Jud Fabian from the No. 3 spot to the No. 5 spot prior to UF”s 7-5 win over Arkansas, and it ended Fabian’s recent lack of success at the plate. Fabian hit his 21st home run of the season, giving him 53 in his UF career.

It wasn't the first time the Gators had attempted to take some pressure off a proven hitter in the midst of a cold streak. O’Sullivan had previously altered UF’s lineup in late April, following a 6-12 start to conference play.

"I think our offense really started to build when we put Wyatt in the lead-off spot," O'Sullivan said. "And I think taking Sterlin (Thompson) and moving him to second and giving Ty Evans a chance to play right field was a huge boost for us."

Florida may have found its recipe for success in Hoover — will the Gators keep Fabian in the No. 5 spot in the Gainesville Regional? Will a different change occur against the Chippewas?