Mercer 4, Florida 2: Making sense of Gators baseball after another midweek mishap

Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE

Is Florida's epic struggle with midweek games cause for concern, or just a symptom of a young team?

Florida's mercurial baseball team was riding high and nursing a six-game winning streak before calamity struck on a Tuesday night. Then the Gators lost.

To Jacksonville. On April 22.

Two weeks later, the same exact scenario played out at McKethan Stadium, where Florida fell, 4-2, to Mercer on Tuesday night. And so we get to keep grappling with the best brain-teaser in Gainesville this spring: Is Florida's baseball team as good as its weekend performances, or as bad as its midweek mishaps?

The Gators' issues in midweek games have actually been a recent development: Florida is 8-4 in games played on Tuesday and Wednesday this season, and notably went 3-0 against Florida State in those games, but has gone 2-4 in those games since April 1, when Florida Atlantic took down the Gators by a 5-4 margin in extra innings. Since then, Florida's beaten Florida State and Florida Gulf Coast in midweek matchups, and lost to Jacksonville, Florida A&M (for the first time in program history), and Mercer. (Of the four teams that have beaten Florida, Mercer's by far the best, sitting just inside the top 25 in national polls and RPI.)

The problem is mostly offensive futility. Florida's won both midweek games since April 1 in which it produced more than four runs (its 8-0 beatdown of FSU in Tallahassee, and its 7-1 win over FGCU in Fort Myers), and lost the four games in which it didn't, leaving at least six men on base in all four games. And no team's scored more than FAU's five runs against the Gators; it's not the pitching staff's fault, even though Florida's only had its starter go more than two innings once in those four losses.

That "good pitching, no hitting" knock is more or less the flip side of what you might expect from a team that has been cycling through pitchers in midweek games, but starting its starters in the field. And it's further confounding because, since April 1, Florida has lost just one series in SEC play, and run off a school record-tying 11-game win streak against SEC foes — and had both pitching and offense for the majority of that stretch.

Florida's only series loss in April or May came over the first weekend of April, when Kentucky scored 35 runs on the Gators in three games. But after getting blown out 17-1 in the Friday opener of that series, the Gators matched Kentucky run for run on the weekend, with both teams scoring 18 runs in the two games. And Florida hasn't allowed more than five runs in any game since that weekend, but has scored more than five runs in eight of its 12 SEC wins.

That ability to "flip a switch" or "turn it on" or whatever we want to term it really is impressive, and Florida's performance in weekend series is far more valuable when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding than its midweek losses are damaging, and the weekend games are likely more predictive in terms of performance in the NCAA Tournament, which more or less mimics the weekend series format.

However: I wrote this two weeks ago, and I still think it's relevant:

As much as I'd like to write off midweek games, though, there's something about how Florida's pitcher-by-committee and okay-let's-see-if-one-person-can-carry-the-offense strategies this week resulted in losses that has me worried about Florida's chances of being an early out in the NCAA Tournament.

If Florida can lose to Florida A&M, it can lose to virtually anyone.

I'm more confident that Florida will win a bunch of NCAA Tournament games than I was back then, after the Gators steamed into Tuscaloosa and swept Alabama. I just think they can lose games in weird ways, too, and thus fear that they will.

And reconciling confidence with fear is difficult.

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