The Gators' road to Omaha starts with South Florida

Franco Aleman - Photo courtesy UAA

The magic numbers that can help the Florida Gators navigate the road to Omaha for the College World Series are three, five and seven.

Three as in three quality starting pitchers. Five as in five wins over two weekends of regional and super regional play in the NCAA Tournament. Seven as in seven pitchers that break down like this – three quality starters, three who can give you long innings or spot starts and a closer.

Last week in Hoover, Alabama, Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan connected all the dots and found his magic numbers.

Heading into the SEC Tournament, O’Sullivan knew he had two starters who he could throw against anyone but the third was the big question. Then Franco Aleman (2-4, 5.02 ERA), who had been flirting with domination all spring, giving two great innings here and three there but never long, strong outings, put it all together against an Alabama team that played its way into the NCAA field with its good showing in Hoover. Aleman, who can heat it up to 97-98 mph on occasions, didn’t need to consistently blow the ball by the Alabama hitters. Rather than let the Bama hitters sit on the fast ball, Aleman mixed it up, busting an 85-87 mph slider in on their fists and keeping them off balance with a very effective change-up that he kept low and away.

The result was five harmless singles in seven scoreless innings, Aleman’s longest and easily the most effective outing he’s had this season. Bama hitters spent the day behind in the count and pounding the ball in the dirt as Aleman had command of all his pitches and didn’t give them anything fat to barrel up. By the time Aleman walked off the field after 92 pitches, O’Sullivan knew he had the third guy he will need if the Gators are to win a regional and super regional. A three-man rotation of Tommy Mace (6-1, 4.32 ERA), Hunter Barco (10-2, 3.81 ERA) and Aleman can take the Gators a long way if they throw like they did in Hoover. In Hoover, Mace got a win against Kentucky when he gave up one run in five innings while striking out eight. Barco followed that up with the best game of his college career, a 7-inning 4-hitter against then 4th-ranked Mississippi State.

Mace, Barco and Aleman are capable of beating any team they face when they throw strikes. When they’re making opponents earn their way on base instead of handing out free passes, they can be very difficult to beat. And, if they can get past the fifth inning, they can save the bullpen and give the Gators a real shot at a win.

That brings us to the number five. With five wins over the next two weekends, the Gators can make an eighth trip to Omaha in O’Sullivan’s 14 years on the job at UF. They need a minimum of three in Gainesville this weekend at the Gainesville regional that includes Miami, South Alabama and South Florida. Win in Gainesville and the Gators will need two more to advance beyond the super regional. Florida is the No. 15 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament which pairs the Gators with the Austin regional, hosted by No. 2 national seed Texas.

The key for the Gainesville regional will be to win those first two games and get at least five innings from Mace and Barco to save the bullpen in case it’s needed on Sunday. Florida faces South Florida (28-27) at noon Friday and with a win will face the Miami-South Alabama winner on Saturday. If the Gators are unbeaten through their first two games, the team that emerges from the loser’s bracket will have to beat UF twice on Sunday, which is a rather tall task since the Gators are 28-7 at The Florida Ballpark.

Lose either Friday or Saturday and it takes a total of five wins to punch the ticket to the super regional. If O’Sullivan can get three consecutive quality starts from Mace, Barco and Aleman, the odds of advancing are very much in Florida’s favor.

Seven is a key number because whether it’s a regional or super regional, it takes a minimum of seven reliable pitchers to make it to Omaha. Now that the regular season has ended, there is no need to save pitching for midweek games, so O’Sullivan has the entire staff ready to go but he has seven ready to go. In addition to Mace, Barco and Aleman, O’Sullivan has Trey Van Der Weide and Brandon Sproat who can go long relief or do a spot start, Christian Scott who can do long relief, setup work or close, and Jack Leftwich, who has emerged as a very effective closer after spending the first half of the season as a starter.

Van Der Weide (2-2, 2.93 ERA, 2 saves), who transferred to Florida from USC-Upstate, has gone as long as three innings on three occasions, more than two innings nine times. He had 14 starts at Upstate before coming to Florida so he could be that experienced extra starter if the Gators have to play through the loser’s bracket. He’s extremely effective against lefthanded hitters. Sproat (2-1, 3.86 ERA) can hit 98 on the radar gun and when he’s throwing strikes, he’s very tough to hit. In his last 8-2/3 innings Sproat has allowed only seven hits and three earned runs. He got a start against Tennessee in Hoover but struggled with his control, walking four in 3-2/3 innings.

Christian Scott (4-2, 3.08, 2 saves) is the do-it-all guy. He has starter’s stuff with mid-90s velocity on his fast ball and he changes speeds quite well. He’s worked mostly as a long reliever this year, but he can close. If O’Sullivan needed a fifth starter this weekend, Scott might get the call if he hadn’t thrown much out of the bullpen.

Leftwich (7-4, 3.49 ERA, 5 saves) began the season as a starter, but when he struggled in consecutive starts against South Carolina and Ole Miss, he went to the bullpen. In his second game out of the pen he pitched four hitless innings in relief against Florida State to pick up the win then followed that up with another four hitless innings for a save against Missouri. He’s been the closer ever since.

* * *

At the regional level, it’s critical to get to Sunday without a loss to avoid having to play five games in three days. If there is a loss in either of the first two games, then the pitching staff will be stretched thin to stave off elimination and advance. Obviously, the fewer games played at the regional, the better rested the pitching staff will be for the super regional.

Because it’s two teams playing a best two-of-three format at the super regional, the strategy changes. It’s a max of three games so win the first two or lose the first two and it’s all over. Lose one of the first two and game three becomes do or die with no need to hold back any pitchers since there is no tomorrow for the loser.

Whether it’s the regional or super regional, it still takes three quality starters, three who can be used in a variety of ways and a closer to can snuff out opponents in the last couple of innings. Florida has the makings of a staff that is capable of winning five games in the next two weekends.

* * *

In Hoover, Florida got mixed results offensively. In game one, a 4-1 win over Kentucky, Florida was outhit 11-5 but the Gators got the critical hits early and held on. Against Mississippi State and Alabama, the Gators exploded for 32 hits and 20 runs only to be shut out on four hits in the SEC Tournament semifinal against Tennessee.

This is a Florida team with good but not great power and not a lot of speed throughout the lineup. When the Gators are scoring a lot of runs as they did against Mississippi State and Alabama, they’re making a lot of contact, hitting the ball in the gaps, getting some power often from unexpected sources and they’re not striking out in critical situations. Key for the Gators will be at the top of the lineup. When Jacob Young (.317, 5 HR, 41 RBI) and Nathan Hickey (.312, 9 HR and 48 RBI) are getting on base, the rest of the Florida lineup tends to be quite productive. For the Gators to win this regional, they will need productivity from Jud Fabian (.258. 20 HR, 46 RBI), a third team All-America center fielder who ranks sixth nationally in home runs. Fabian has had four two-homer games this season. If he gets untracked, he can carry Florida offensively for an entire weekend.

Friday the Gators will be going against South Florida’s Jack Jasiak (6-7, 2.92 ERA), a redshirt freshman righty who has given up only three runs and 11 hits in his last 29-2/3 innings. Jasiak pitched the Bulls into the American Athletic Conference championship game by going 8-2/3 shutout innings against Tulane, allowing only two hits while striking out 12. His only bad outing of the season was against No. 8 national seed Texas Tech, which lit him up for eight runs and nine hits in 4-2/3 innings back in March.

The Gators will need to get to Jasiak early because once the game gets past the sixth inning, the Bulls will bring on their two closers – lefty Lyle Logan (4-1, 2.03 ERA, 4 saves) and Orion Kekering (4-3, 2.36 ERA, 4 saves). Between the two of them, they have 95 strikeouts in 82 innings and they’ve allowed only 61 hits.

It will be critical for Mace to shut down the Bulls three power hitters – Carmine Lane (.326, 10 HR, 41 RBI), Riley Hogan (.280, 11 HR, 36 RBI) and Roberto Pena (.249, 12 HR, 38 RBI). If Mace can keep those three in the yard or from hitting with men in scoring position, the Bulls will have a difficult time scoring runs.

* * *

By no means is this the best Florida team that O’Sullivan has put on the field. The Gators are flawed in so many ways, but they’re resilient and the way they played in Hoover showed what they’re capable of doing. O’Sullivan has made it to Omaha seven times in the past so he knows the three, seven, five formula works quite well. He has the three quality starters that it takes to win five games over two weekends and he has seven reliable pitchers. If the Gators can add some hitting and avoid making critical errors in the field, they are capable of making it to Omaha, but first things first.

You can’t even think about Omaha until you’ve first gotten out of Gainesville.

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