A few thoughts to jump start your Friday morning:
O’SULLIVAN HAS THE GATORS PLAYING LIKE NO. 1 AT JUST THE RIGHT TIME
Kevin O’Sullivan would probably call this a fair trade.
The Gators started out as a unanimous No. 1, but in the nearly four months since the season began with two losses in three games against Miami, it’s been a head scratching ride of inconsistency highlighted by too many strikeouts with men in scoring position, too many costly errors that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and a short-handed pitching staff that has struggled to make the ball avoid contact with opponents’ bats.
And yet here we are, three games into an SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover, Alabama with the Gators looking anything like a team that was expected to make a rather hasty exit back to Gainesville. The Gators aren’t the nation’s No. 1 team but they’ve spent the last three games in Hoover polishing up their image and looking every bit like the team everybody thought they would be back in February. O’Sullivan would probably call this a fair trade. After all, you can’t win a national championship in February but if you’re playing your best baseball of the year in May, you can definitely get on the road to Omaha for the College World Series.
Should the Gators continue to play like they have in making it to Saturday’s tournament semifinals, they’ll create a dilemma for the NCAA Tournament Committee. The entire body of work makes the Gators a top 16 national seed which means they will host a regional. If they make it to Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game unbeaten in four games the committee might have to consider UF as a top eight national seed which would make them a host for both regional and super regionals.
Florida (38-19) made it 3-0 in Hoover Thursday with a 7-2 win over Alabama (31-23), a game in which Franco Aleman looked anything like the pitcher whose ERA was 9.00 in his previous four starts. In what was easily his best start of the season, Aleman pitched seven shutout innings, limiting Alabama to just five hits. Aleman (2-4, 5.02 ERA) spent the day throwing fast balls that ranged from the mid-90s up to 98 miles per hour. He only struck out four but his busted his slider in on the fists of the Alabama batters often enough to induce 12 ground outs. In the previous four games he struggled with control. Thursday he was just wild enough to be dangerous but when he needed to bear down and make a pitch, he put the ball where he wanted it.
Picking up where they left off Wednesday when they pounded out 18 hits in a 13-1 win over Mississippi State, the Gators were good for 14 Thursday including home runs by Jacob Young (5th) and Nathan Hickey (9th). Young and freshman Sterlin Thompson each had three hits while Cory Acton continued his late season revival with two hits and three RBI.
The Gators will face the winner of today’s elimination matchup between Alabama and Tennessee in one of the Saturday semifinals. Arkansas, the SEC regular season champion which is ranked No. 1 nationally, will face the winner of today’s Ole Miss-Vanderbilt game in the other semifinal. Once in the semifinal round, the tournament reverts back to single elimination.
Gators in the tournament: Leadoff hitter Jacob Young is 7-13 in the tournament with a double, two home runs and five RBI. He has raised his batting average to .318 … Hickey is 5-12 in the tournament to raise his batting average to .313. Prior to the tournament he was mired in a 5-41 slump … Thompson, now hitting .318, is 6-13 with two doubles, a homer and five RBI … The defensive plays of the game were a nifty pickoff at first base by Aleman in the third inning and catcher Mac Guscete throwing out Peyton Wilson, who was attempting to steal third, in the bottom of the sixth … Florida pitchers have walked only four batters in three games.
THE ROAD TO OKC CONTINUES AT THE GAINESVILLE SUPER REGIONAL
Tim Walton has taken eight previous Florida softball teams to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series. The Gators (45-9) are two wins over Georgia (32-21) in the Gainesville Super Regional from a ninth trip to OKC in what might prove to be the best coaching job of Walton’s 16-year tenure at the University of Florida. Unlike the previous eight teams that made it to OKC, this one doesn’t have a dominant pitcher that can simply blow three strikes past a hitter on demand, a bunch of big boppers up and down the lineup who are threats to leave the yard and a consistent offense that Walton knows is good for at least five or six runs per game.
Instead, he has a by committee pitching staff that doesn’t walk or hit opposing batters and gets a lot of ground outs and a defense that rarely makes an error. The Gators have allowed only 108 batters all season and they’ve hit only 21. The Gators rank ninth nationally in earned run average (1.72) and they’re sixth in fielding with only 27 errors all year.
The offense is inconsistent but when the Gators need a big hit, someone typically comes through in the clutch. The Gators have eight walk-off wins and 13 of the come-from behind variety. Florida has hit only hit 54 homers which pales in comparison to SEC teams like Arkansas and Missouri, but UF homers tend to happen late in ball games when the Gators need to come from behind. Charla Echols (.390, 15 HR, 55 RBI), who has struck out only three times all season, is Florida’s most dangerous hitter in late innings.
To punch their ticket to the WCWS, the Gators will need to silence the bats of Georgia’s big three – Lacey Fincher (.341, 15 HR, 36 RBI), Sydney Chamblee (.311, 11 HR, 36 RBI) and Sydney Kuma (.300, 14 HR, 37 RBI). The Gators are likely to start Elizabeth Hightower (17-5, 1.51 ERA) in game one. She didn’t give up a hit in 13-1/3 innings in the Gainesville Regional.
First pitch for game one at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium is set for 5 p.m. with television coverage on ESPNU.
SAM RIFFICE WILL PLAY FOR NCAA SINGLES TITLE Florida captain Sam Riffice is one match away from becoming the third NCAA tennis singles champion in school history. Riffice earned his way into the championship match Thursday when he beat No. 1 seeded Liam Draxl of Kentucky, 7-6, 2-6, 6-1.
The championship match with No. 2 seed Daniel Rodrigues of South Carolina is set for 12 noon today.
OVER, UNDER, AROUND AND THROUGH THE SEC
Alabama: With their loss to Florida at the SEC Tournament Thursday, the Crimson Tide (31-23) might have some work to do to make the NCAA field. D1Baseball.com has Bama listed in its first five teams out for the NCAA Tournament. Alabama can probably erase any doubt if the Tide can knock off 2nd-seeded and 4th-ranked Tennessee in an elimination game today … Alabama (47-7), seeded 3rd nationally, hosts Kentucky (43-14) in the first game of the Tuscaloosa super regional today.
Arkansas: The No. 1 ranked and No. 1 seeded Razorbacks (44-10) joined Florida as the only unbeaten teams in the SEC Tournament with a 6-4 win over Vanderbilt Thursday night in Hoover … The Razorbacks offered a football scholarship to eighth-grader Lance Jackson, a defensive end who is already 6-5 and 242 pounds ... The 6th-seeded Razorbacks (43-14) host No. 11 Arizona in game one of the Fayetteville softball super regional today.
Georgia: Georgia (31-25) is projected as the No. 3 seed in the Greenville (NC) regional by D1Baseball.com … will have 100% capacity for football games this fall with concession prices reduced by 50 percent ... Georgia (32-21) travels to Gainesville to face No. 4 national seed Florida in the Gainesville softball super regional.
LSU: The Tigers (34-22) are projected to be the No. 3 seed in the Ruston NCAA regional … LSU lost 1-0 to Florida State in the first game of the Baton Rouge softball super regional Thursday.
Mississippi State: Two losses at the SEC Tournament have dropped the Bulldogs (40-15) to the No. 8 national seed. That still would allow the Bulldogs to host a super regional if they win the Starkville regional.
Missouri: The 8th-seeded Tigers (43-14) will host James Madison in the first game of the Columbia softball super regional today.
Ole Miss: The Rebels stayed alive in the SEC Tournament with a 4-0 win over Georgia Thursday, earning a rematch with Vanderbilt. Ole Miss lost to Vandy in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday night … D1Baseball.com lists the Rebels as the No. 12 national seed, hosting a regional in Oxford.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks (33-21) are projected to be the No. 2 seed in the South Bend regional in the NCAA Tournament by D1Baseball.com.
Tennessee: The 4th-ranked and 2nd-seeded Vols (43-15) won their Thursday elimination game with Mississippi State with an 8-inning, run-rule 12-2 victory. Tennessee will face 10th-seeded Alabama today with the winner advancing to the SEC Tournament semifinals ... D1Baseball lists the Vols hosting a regional in Knoxville as the nation’s No. 4 overall seed.
Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt (40-14) will have to emerge from the elimination bracket to have a chance at repeating as SEC Tournament champs. The Commodores will face Ole Miss in a loser goes home game today.
ONE FINAL PITHY THOUGHT: Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have introduced legislation that would allow athletes to form unions and be considered employees of the school they represent. The bill, entitled the College Athletes Right to Organize, asserts that whether it’s by a scholarship or direct payment athletes are employees who should have the right to organize and bargain. Each conference would be viewed as a bargaining unit and athletes would be allowed to bargain for compensation, working hours and working conditions. It’s interesting that while the bill will make athletes employees of the school, the scholarships will not be taxed nor will they affect the athlete’s federal financial aid (Pell Grant) status. If this bill passes and becomes law, you can all but kiss college sports as we know them good-bye. Back in 2015, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled against Northwestern’s attempt to unionize athletes, it’s 5-member panel ruled that a union would cause tremendous instability to college sports. Instability is an understatement. I know a lot of people who think that if this bill passes we could see a lot of college athletic departments – perhaps even a majority of them – disbanding their entire scholarship programs and either going non-scholarship or eliminating all sports.