Final ride: Roller-coaster Gators baseball eliminated from 2013 NCAA Tournament by Valparaiso

Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE

The 2013 Florida baseball team will forever be known as one of the most talented teams to have a losing record in NCAA history.

The most amazing thing? It was a total team effort. Everything went to pieces all at once in the later innings.

On Saturday, in the first elimination game of the Bloomington Regional, Florida led Valparaiso 4-1 after a middle-inning offensive surge, highlighted by Cody Dent's two-run double. Starter Johnny Magliozzi was doing just fine through six innings.

Then Valpo scored four runs in the seventh on two hits, courtesy of a Magliozzi/Daniel Gibson walk-a-thon (three walks in the inning), and Florida's bats went silent with two runners in scoring position in the ninth. Valparaiso won, 5-4, knocking the 2013 Gators out of the NCAA Tournament — or, I should say, putting them out of their misery.

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Since Jeremy Foley was hired as the Florida's athletic director in 1992, the Gators athletic program has been on a rise to the top. He made several moves that went unnoticed by the casual observer, but that helped make Florida sports among the most prestigious in the nation.

Some of those moves included keeping Steve Spurrier, hiring Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan (it's still too early to declare the hiring of Will Muschamp a success), and hiring Pat McMahon to coach the baseball team. McMahon took the Gators to the 2005 College World Series Championship Series, where they lost to Texas, two games to none.

Two things happened immediately after the sweep at the hands of the Longhorns: Florida football and basketball rose to the top and stayed there — literally, with a combined four national championships among those programs in the next four years — and Gators baseball fell back down to mediocrity. Of course, mediocrity has never been good enough for Foley (ask Ron Zook), so he fired McMahon after the 2007 baseball season and brought on Kevin O'Sullivan to replace him.

At the time, nobody cared about the struggling baseball team, because the basketball team had just won back-to-back national championships and the football team was only a few months removed from a BCS Championship and appeared ready to do it again in 2007. Turns out Meyer's Gators would put a year between titles, but the point is, when the football team is good, it comes first, and when the basketball team is good, it comes first when football season ends. Nobody is thinking about baseball when those two sports are winning championships.

Except O'Sullivan didn't quite see it that way. He turned over a team with a losing record the year before and made them into a tournament team. While the Gators went two and out in the Tallahassee Regional, it was clear that O'Sullivan was quietly building a foundation in Gainesville.

The Gators then proceeded to make four straight Super Regionals, and after being upset in the first one by Southern Miss in 2009, made three straight College World Series appearances from 2010-2012.

The point of everything you just read: Do not, in any way, blame O'Sullivan for the failure of of a season Florida experienced in 2013. It was a horrible season by Gators standards; putting it in another way in which I'm about to elaborate on, the entire year was just un-Gator-like, in every way imaginable.

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As I mentioned above, Gator sports have been extremely successful since Foley came aboard in 1992. Successful sports teams always have tough games that they have to win to be champions, and they do it. The old saying goes, big players make big plays in big games. For the past two decades, Florida has done just that. To me, the two plays that come to mind are Mike Miller's buzzer beater in 2000 to beat Butler in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to propel Florida to the title game and Tim Tebow willing his way to a huge first down against Tennessee as a freshman. Over the years there have been hundreds, maybe even thousands of other clutch plays by Gator players that played a role in getting the Gators a championship (or at last a deep NCAA Tournament run).

However, no athletic program or team is always invincible. Everybody has to rebuild, or at least reload. After losing Tim Tebow and half the defense in 2010, Urban Meyer's football team was little better than any of Ron Zook's teams. That team lost more big games than any Gator team of any sport since I've been alive; part of that had to do with the rest of the SEC East losing so many games as well that every big game the Gators blew, somebody else would lose a game they shouldn't have (South Carolina losing to Kentucky, for example) so they'd get another, which they'd usually blow. Of the Urban Meyer teams, that 2010 version was the least clutch. And it was the worst, too.

The other trademark of Gator sports under Foley is having great story lines. Whether the headlines were how overly dominant the Gators were on the football field in 2008, how amazing their back to back national titles were in basketball, or how much of a dynasty Kevin O'Sullivan had built on the diamond, the majority of the story lines surrounding Gator sports are usually simply about how good the Gators were.

But even in hard times, the Gators are always clutch. There are still great feel good, bittersweet stories surrounding the Gators when they're terrible. Let's take that 2010 Gator football team as an example. Chas Henry, the senior punter who took a beating for missing the game tying field goal against Mississippi State, nailed the kick to beat Georgia. Ahmad Black, who was always told he was too small and too slow to be a good safety, sealed the Outback Bowl win- which, by the way, happened to be the game that Urban Meyer promised to win for Ian Lockwood, a critically ill high school football player. Less than a month after receiving that game ball, Lockwood tragically passed away.

To sum all that up, even the worst Gator teams that fans really counted on (meaning, not including some of the really bad baseball teams) in recent memory did something to put a smile on your face. There was that one defining moment (2012 Gator Bowl win over Ohio State is a more recent example) that made you at least temporarily forget how bad the season was as a whole. It's been that way since Jeremy Foley came along in 1992.

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It ended with the 2013 baseball team.

It almost made me want to bash my head against a wall to watch Florida blow lead after lead all year long knowing how talented this team was. If you want a football analogy for this team, think of Stephen Garcia, the QB for South Carolina a few years ago: he could be really good, and he could be really bad- never enough of either to make a definite decision on.

This Florida team swept South Carolina, but got swept by Florida Gulf Coast. This team beat top 8 national seeds Vanderbilt and Florida State, but lost to mid majors North Florida and Georgia Southern. This team won 8 straight just a few short weeks ago, (5 games against ranked teams) but lost 5 straight to end the year. The Gators couldn't even beat either of their two main rivals (in a series), something even the worst Billy Donovan basketball can say they did. FSU, as the #7 national seed, is understandable, but losing two out of three to a Georgia team who finished dead last in the SEC is completely unacceptable.

But there was no defining feel-good story, with the possible exception of the sweep of the Gamecocks, who have been hell for the Gators to deal with the last few years and there was certainly nothing clutch about this team at all. You didn't need to watch a single regular season game to know that about this team; all you had to do was watch all three postseason games for this team (Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament, and Austin Peay and Valparaiso in the NCAA Tournament) and you'd have enough heartache to last you a decade.

After stranding 13 runners in the biggest game of the season, the 2013 Gators are finished, and so are two seniors who played big roles in previous years' successes, Vickash Ramjit and Cody Dent. They had great careers for Florida, and I of course wish them the best moving on. But as for the rest of the Gators, there's a lot of work to do. And nobody knows this more than Kevin O'Sullivan himself. As O'Sullivan said, "It's just hard when you have expectations for your team and the season comes to an abrupt end like it has. This season is not the standard we want at Florida. There's no rebuilding at Florida."

Three postseason games. Three multiple-run leads. Three losses. Season over. You think that's not the standard? The three College World Series trips in the previous three years are powerful evidence that it isn't.

The good news is, we have a guy with his head screwed on right. He knows what his team just did is unacceptable. Two and out in the NCAA Tournament is, well, un-Gator like. It shows a lack of clutch plays and definitely doesn't leave the fans feeling good. But the Gators also went a painful two and out in Tallahassee a few years back.

There is rebuilding at Florida, contrary to what Sully said, but as he's proven before, it doesn't last long. And, thankfully for all of us, that's better than whatever this was.

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