History is made: Florida Gators baseball wins its first national championship

By Adam Silverstein
June 27, 2017
History is made: Florida Gators baseball wins its first national championship

Image Credit: NCAA

The third time was indeed a charm for Florida Gators baseball, which clinched the 2017 College World Series Championship Series on Tuesday night with a 6-1 win over the LSU Tigers to bring home the first national championship in program history.

Florida, which advanced to the CWS Championship Series only to be swept on two prior occasions (2005, 2011), took down SEC-rival LSU in consecutive games at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, to claim the 2017 national title.

The victory makes the Gators just the seventh athletic program in NCAA history to win national championships in the three major men’s sports. Florida joins California, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Stanford and UCLA with that accolade, though UF is just the fourth to do so in the AP Top 25 era and first in SEC history. The Gators also captured titles in all three sports in the last 10 years, making them the only team to do so in the last 50.

“I’m just so happy for our players. It’s all about them. They’re the ones putting in all the hard work,” said head coach Kevin O’Sullivan immediately after the win. “… I’m so happy for all of our staff back at home watching, our fans. We always knew there was going to be one first team. I’m just happy for these guys that they were able to pull it off tonight.”

For UF, the championship comes in the 103rd year of the baseball program’s existence and the 10th since O’Sullivan has taken over the team. It also comes during a season in which it appeared the Gators were not built to actually go all the way for the first time in years.

“I’m just so happy for them. No one believed in us. Usually we go into this thing and we’re not the underdog. We kind of took that on as the tournament went on,” O’Sullivan explained. “I don’t think anybody thought we’d get to this point.

“We had our struggles throughout the year offensively; I think about mid-March we were hitting .230 as a team. But they kept working and believing. And I told them before the season started that we had what it took, the ingredients to pull this thing off. I’m just really happy for them.”

Indeed, it was pitching that took Florida through the postseason and as close as it had ever been to winning its first national title. Freshman right-handed pitcher Tyler Dyson received a surprise start and delivered on Tuesday, throwing six scoreless innings before putting a runner on in the seventh. He gave up just three hits, one earned run and two walks before ceding way to the Gators’ bullpen.

“I just tried to get ahead early and let them get themselves out and trust the defense behind me, and that’s how I feel I was successful early,” Dyson said. “I was able to locate the slider, backdoor to lefties and get early ground balls and early flyouts. And the wind blowing in in this big park, they’re a flyball-hitting team, so tried to let themselves get out and try to get ahead in the count.”

Sophomore RHP Michael Byrne (1.1 IP, 4 H, K) was roughed up before being pulled for sophomore RHP Jackson Kowar in the eighth. Kowar forced contact outs for 1.2 innings, giving up just one hit before clinching the victory in the ninth.

This after junior ace Alex Faedo (7.1 IP, 3 H, 4 BB, 11 K) led Florida to a win in a semifinal elimination game and sophomore RHP Brady Singer (7.0 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 12 K) set a CWS Championship Series strikeout record in a Game 1 victory.

While pitching played a major role in the Gators’ victory, it was early scoring, tremendous defense and a bit of luck that allowed Florida to take its first national title.

The Tigers committed three errors through as many innings as the Gators tallied six hits. Florida was not able to capitalize with too many runs, leaving seven on base, but notched RBI singles in the first and second inning to take a 2-0 lead that it held into the seventh inning.

Dyson gave up a lead-off single in the seventh, and the base runner scored after Byrne allowed two hits at the start of his outing, but UF was able to breathe thanks to a horrible miscue by LSU. Byrne forced a 4-6-3 double play with no outs that should have resulted in the Tigers scoring a run from third and tying the game.

Instead, a runner attempted to break up the double play by sliding directly into junior shortstop Dalton Guthrie rather than going for the bag. The umpire immediately called runner interference, sending the runner at third back from home and giving Florida two outs. Junior center fielder Nick Horvath then made an incredible catch in shallow center to save another opportunity at the game-tying run, getting Byrne out of a massive jam.

The Gators’ defense stepped up again in the eighth after Byrne put runners on the corners to start the inning. Byrne struck a batter out and was pulled for Kowar, who took over with one out and allowed his first batter to make contact. Luckily for Florida, junior first baseman JJ Schwarz charged the ball and threw home as junior catcher Mike Rivera crowded the base and made the unforced out.

“The play with JJ, that’s a heads-up play,” said Kowar, who watched on as it developed. “To throw on the money right there in a situation like that is awesome. He’s a catcher by trade. That’s not even his position. Our defense has done that all year for us. So it’s nothing new for our guys behind us. They’ve really given our pitching staff the most confidence in the world.”

Any momentum LSU had was lost, and Florida piled on four runs in the bottom frame as insurance on its way to a national championship. The Gators had been just 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position entering the inning.

O’Sullivan credited Florida’s poise through the 2017 NCAA Tournament, and particularly the College World Series, for putting it in position to win.

“[Our defense is] about as big as anything that we’ve done on the field. Obviously our starting pitching was outstanding, but when you go five games without making an error and you don’t beat yourself, it just makes it more difficult on the other team that you’re not giving them more outs, they’re working with 27 outs,” he explained.

“And we take pride in our defense. We take pride in how we play fundamentally. … And we handled the ball. And it goes back to recruiting. We recruit a lot of baseball players. … We tried to recruit players that have a high baseball IQ. And when you have players that know the game, they tend to know the difference between hitting and playing defense, because at this age a lot of kids take their bat out on defense if they’re having a tough game offensively, and our kids have learned to separate both parts of the game.”

In the end, the result was a national championship for the Gators, one that certainly seemed improbable just months ago but is now pure reality.

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