When the stars are not enough: Florida baseball and the pain of almost

Minda Haas

Florida baseball came close to winning a national championship for the third straight year. But it didn't. Good thing Gators fans are well-acquainted with the pain of almost.

Hello from Omaha. Florida's baseball team is not here.

I don't know that I really expected them to be. But that they almost were is painful.

Florida's 5-4, rabbit punch-to-the-kidneys loss to Kent State was only barely conventional.

The Gators made two errors in the first two innings, and they came from the usually rock-solid left side of the infield: Nolan Fontana threw high on a throw to first that would have given Florida two outs in the top of the first, maybe limiting Hudson Randall's stress load and temperature by allowing him to get out of it a little quicker and maybe preventing a run, and Josh Tobias muffed a difficult play that would have put Kent State in a one-out, man-on-second situation, changing the complexion of the inning entirely, and certainly scuttling the sacrifice bunt that put runners on second and third with one out and set up a three-run rally. Those errors gave Florida five in 11 innings; the Gators had not committed five in two consecutive games in 2012.

Florida left 12 men on base, and scored just four runs despite putting a man on base in every inning and the leadoff man on in six of them. (The Gators scored three and four runs in two games Omaha after coming in having been held to four or fewer runs in 23 of 65 games coming in.) Kevin O'Sullivan pinch hit Cody Dent, a guy who may have struggled to be the best hitter on your or my high school team this year, for Brian Johnson, a first round MLB Draft pick, with two men on and no outs in the bottom of the ninth, for the purpose of bunting men over.

Never mind that Kent State pitchers had thrown eight straight balls, or that freshman Josh Pierce had thrown the last two, or that he would throw Dent three more and hit Daniel Pigott after him: Avoiding the double play, two innings after Johnson, who could lose a footrace to a glacier, grounded into one, governed O'Sullivan's decision, not the chance of giving one of the best batsmen on the team a chance to swing one.

Star-divide

Florida fans are familiar with baseball being close and yet not close enough. Andy Lopez piloted his 1996 Gators to the penultimate game of the College World Series. Pat McMahon's Gators lost two games in the CWS Championship Series to Texas in 2005. O'Sullivan's team lost twice to Southern Miss at home in the Gainesville Super Regional in 2009, made a "two-and-'cue" appearance in Omaha in 2010, and stormed through the 2011 College World Series before being limited to three runs and never leading in two games against South Carolina in the final.

And Florida fans are familiar with Gators teams of all stripes doing the same. Football's the easiest to point at: Steve Spurrier's Gators looked like world-beaters in 1993 and 1994, but were tripped up by Auburn and Florida State; they conquered the 'Noles in 1995 before being bum-rushed by Nebraska; Florida was in line for another national championship try in 2001 before an upset by Tennessee; we all remember 2009.

But Lon Kruger coached a Florida basketball team to the Final Four before it fell by five points to Duke, and Billy Donovan's precocious 2000 Gators couldn't crack Michigan State, and the Gators have an active streak of two straight collapses in the second half of Elite Eight games. Florida softball went to the Women's College World Series for four straight years from 2008 to 2011 and notched zero wins in two appearances in the Championship Series. Florida gymnastics has never won a national title, and came within less than a point of winning one in 2012. Florida lacrosse looked like the nation's best team for much of the 2012 season, then faltered in the Final Four against Syracuse just last month.

The almosts and coulda, woulda, shouldas are not rare in Florida's athletic history, especially its recent athletic history. But they have come with the triumphs that erase the regrets and negate the hypotheticals, and those victories and titles both spawn the expectations of ultimate success and deepen the despair when it doesn't happen.

To borrow a phrase: 'Tis better to have won and lost than never won at all, but having won makes losing forever unacceptable on some level.

Star-divide

O'Sullivan's success, in particular, is a curse.

Both Lopez and McMahon had their success at Florida before Sully. Lopez's teams won 136 games from 1996 to 1998; McMahon took a team Lopez left him and immediately went 46-19, and got Florida its first CWS Championship Series appearance. But they built on squishy ground — Florida baseball had just two College World Series appearances and one 50-win season before them, both coming under Joe Arnold and since 1988 — and their teams ebbed after initial success. Lopez' final team went 31-29; McMahon's went 29-30.

All O'Sullivan has done in his five years is set 34-24 in his first season as the low bar, recruit like a demon to produce dozens of MLB Draft picks, produce the best season of Florida baseball ever (53-19) in 2011, and steer a 2012 team that came into No. 1 and struggled through injuries and the crushing weight of expectation back to the No. 1 overall seed and a third straight trip to Omaha — for comparison, McMahon's 2006 team, also the preseason No. 1, finished 28-28 and missed the 2006 NCAA Tournament. Truly, O'Sullivan's tenure has produced a monstrous amount of respect for his program if finishing among the top eight teams in the country is viewed as a massive disappointment.

And yet it is.

There's something ironic about O'Sullivan's recruitment and development of sluggers like Preston Tucker, Mike Zunino, and Johnson coinciding with the erosion of power in college baseball in general (thanks, BBCOR!) and at the College World Series (thanks, TD Ameritrade!) in particular. He's built teams that are nearly unbeatable at much smaller McKethan Stadium, but those teams have struggled to score in Omaha, producing 35 runs in nine games at the College World Series since 2010. (O'Sullivan's own undermining of a team with a lot of power, with a nearly pathological reliance on the sacrifice bunt, doesn't help.)

If I were tasked to find a collegiate version of the famed failure of Billy Beane's Moneyball-featured Athletics to produce at the highest level — Beane's "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs" is legendary for a reason — it might well be Florida's postseason woes under O'Sullivan: Always very good, never great enough to do anything but fold when dealt unlucky hands.

Star-divide

Boiling down any sample (or baseball season) few games will always have a chance of producing bizarre results, of course. Two games at the College World Series represent a tiny 3.5 percent of Florida's 2012 season; one game is half that, and the randomness best explains a half-dozen things going wrong against both South Carolina and Kent State, because weird things can just happen randomly.

Fontana might not have thrown high because of some intangible pressure; it could have just happened. Singles up the middle might not have come because Kent State figured out a rattled Crawford, but because those balls found that hole. And the tremendous catches Evan Marzilli and Evan Crawford made against the Gators were more likely great timely plays happening the 20 times of 100 that they would rather than products of more composed or driven or smarter teams.

There's no sport that I know of that is completely immune to the vicissitudes of luck. Baseball is more subjective than most, thanks to umpires calling balls and strikes, than most. Combine bad luck — a cutter not cutting, a wild pitch bouncing the wrong way — and subjectivity going the wrong way — Fontana not being granted time, that ball four/strike two against Casey Turgeon — and losses happen.

Those losses, the ones in which luck trumps skill, aren't just a baseball quirk. They happen to all teams in all sports at all levels; they're unavoidable. There's enough randomness in sports to ensure that the best team playing the best at the most opportune time is more rare than the fans of the best team would be. That's parity, and it exists in all sports. All you can do as a player or a coach or a general manager or an athletic director, is try to build in enough of a buffer against luck, whether by compiling better talent, refining existing talent, building the best facilities, funding the team more fully, or changing luck-susceptible approaches over the course of a game, to mitigate the damage.

I thought Florida did, this year, with a constellation of stars that seemed no more than a hit or a swinging strikeout or a fractional change in approach from being the best team at the best time.

I was wrong.

Star-divide

Fans do their own work, in my experience, when guarding against the potential for bad luck ruining a great season. I knew that when I was booking my Delta flight to Omaha from Orlando via Minneapolis, the ticket was both cheap enough to justify as a vacation if things didn't work out because of the friend I could stay with in Omaha and valuable enough as the first step to maybe seeing my Gators win a national championship to be worth pouncing on immediately.

And when I watched Florida's 7-3 loss to South Carolina, I immediately had the sinking feeling I get when things start blotting out the orange sun or the blue sky, certain I was not alone.

Florida's history of near-misses has conditioned me to think that the near-misses are as inevitable as the victories, and 2012 in particular has made me think that there is plenty of pain and anguish (painguish?) coming back to us for that spectacular run from 2006 to 2009. Florida's loss to Louisville in the Elite Eight, especially, was a racking defeat: I didn't mention it much, but that SB Nation partnership with Buick that would send the Final Four teams' bloggers to New Orleans was something I thought about from almost the moment that Norfolk State beat Missouri. There was a chance my team would play on college basketball's biggest stage, and a chance I would be there; that was a tremendous bit of luck for me, a Gators fan whose favorite team, The Oh-Fours, existed just before I made it to Gainesville to see games. I almost got to see Florida-Kentucky IV in New Orleans, a chance to see if the Florida team that had almost knocked off Anthony Davis' 'Cats at the SEC Tournament could one-up itself in New Orleans.

That, of course, didn't happen. And neither did the lacrosse title that danced in my head as Florida built a huge lead against Syracuse, nor the gymnastics championship that looked more possible than ever before as Kytra Hunter's precociousness blended with the rest of Rhonda Faehn's deep squad perfectly. I got hopeful for things that didn't happen a lot in 2012, maybe because it was on the heels of football's disappointing 2011, or because basketball had already tasted Elite Eight heartbreak.

Almosts prepare fans for wins. But they should also prepare fans for almosts. And yet, for me, almosts are still the worst: Still shattering as they happen, still unfathomable until they happen, still worse than mediocrity's curse of irrelevance and failure's pall of desperation.

Almost is measured best by the difference between what could have been and what is. When what could have been, as so often happens for Florida, is the ultimate triumph, that difference seems like a expanse that yawns wider than the sky.

Star-divide

I'm here in Omaha now, watching Auction Hunters (not even in the same realm of quality as Storage Wars) and finishing this piece. One of my best friends in the world is here, and graciously letting me stay with her. Omaha's not Gainesville — which I love dearly until I feel it suffocating me, then escape, then love more upon my return, as I have learned over my more than five years as a Gainesville resident — and so I'll enjoy this vacation, eating steaks and barbecue and watching baseball.

But I suspect I won't stop looking for Florida's ghosts.

I wish I were going to watch my team play for a national championship. But I'll have to settle for looking up at the Nebraska night sky, trying to grasp how far it is from almost to the mountaintop, and wondering what could have been.

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