Through six innings, all Florida sophomore Brett Morales allowed on Wednesday night against USF were zeroes.
Zero hits, zero walks, zero men on base. He was perfect, and two thirds of the way to a perfect game — something that has never happened in the history of Florida baseball.
And then Kevin O'Sullivan pulled him.
Florida would go on to win 13-3, with junior Harrison Bader keeping up his white-hot start on a 2-for-3 night with three RBI and freshman JJ Schwarz powdering a two-run homer as part of a five-RBI performance.
But Morales had set down all 18 batters he faced, and that was the story.
O'Sullivan gave it an abrupt ending — but the right one, too.
In college baseball, most players, especially at Florida's level, are still aspiring to professional careers. Morales, drafted in the 24th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds, could have a very good one, especially given how he wowed longtime college baseball writer Aaron Fitt on Wednesday night.
Really like what I'm seeing from Brett Morales - has retired first 9 hitters, 3 via K. Got one with an 11-5 curve and one on right/right CH.— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) February 19, 2015
#Gators RHP Brett Morales has about as good a changeup as you'll see in college ball - great arm speed & disappearing action. 6 up, 6 down.— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) February 19, 2015
Morales has located his 88-90 fastball well, especially to arm side. His 75-77 change has been devastating, & he's kept his slow curve down.— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) February 19, 2015
But O'Sullivan, like many college coaches, has his starters on a strict pitch count this early in the season — they probably won't throw more than 70 to 75 pitches for another week or two at least. None of Florida's three starters last weekend threw more than 76 pitches, and only A.J. Puk, who walked a man on a full count with two outs in the fifth, and was lifted immediately afterward, topped 75.
Morales handed the ball to O'Sullivan after exactly 70 pitches on Wednesday. And O'Sullivan explained his approach in clear, honest terms:
"That was as good of a start as I’ve seen in quite some time. Brett kept USF hitters off-balance and he was able to mix all of his pitches early in the count. He was really sharp, I was pleased at how he threw. It was hard to take a pitcher out with a perfect game through six. It’s early in the year and you have to look at the big picture. Brett was outstanding."
The big picture is clear, too: It is far more important, both to Morales and to Florida, for him to stay healthy enough to help the Gators and keep his pro dreams alive than it is for him to gun for a perfect game in his first start of the season. So history doesn't get made on chilly Wednesday night in February. So what?
Fitt lavished praise on O'Sullivan for the decision, too:
No coach in college baseball takes better care of his arms than Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan.
There are plenty of good college pitching coaches who handle their young arms responsibly, but most of them have a blemish or two on their resumes. O’Sullivan’s track record is spotless; he never overworks his pitchers, early in the year or late in the year. That doesn’t mean his pitchers never get hurt—Karsten Whitson had shoulder surgery despite all of O’Sullivan’s caution, but it wasn’t because of his workload, which was managed with extreme diligence.
"You know what? I don’t know if I’ve ever coached in a game where a guy’s thrown six perfect innings," O’Sullivan said. "I mean, you just don’t see that very often. Taking him out was not a hard thing to do. I think from the outside looking in, it’s early in the season, he’s a prospect, and what are you going to do? Even if he went out for the seventh and continued what he was doing, he wasn’t going to throw a complete game. So I kind of softened the blow when I talked to him, I kind of asked him what he thought, but I already knew what I was going to do, and he understood."
That understanding comes with pitching in this program. And it’s a big reason Florida is able to attract so many premium arms year after year—recruits know that O’Sullivan will protect their arms and prepare them to succeed in professional baseball. The Gators have plenty of recruiting advantages in addition to their sterling reputation for development—they have a great recruiting base and a marquee brand name. But while so many college coaches shrink their staffs by the time the postseason arrives and lean heavily on their five or six most trusted arms, O’Sullivan expands his staff as the season progresses, using as many arms as he can early in the year and throughout the spring, then trusting his entire staff in big situations when it matters most in May and June.
The specter of Karsten Whitson will loom large over Florida for a long time to come, because Whitson was essentially the best pitching prospect in a decade or more to turn down top-10 money and come to school, and that, unfortunately, was a gamble that didn't work out for him.
He's a Red Sox farmhand now, after a great freshman campaign that positioned him to be Florida's ace for two years to come was followed by "shoulder fatigue" in 2012 that led to him getting shut down and an elbow injury in 2013 that led to him missing the entire season. Whitson rebounded, to some degree, in 2014, throwing one last marvelous game against LSU in the SEC Tournament, and was taken in the 11th round of the 2014 MLB Draft. But his choice to come to Florida cost him millions and millions of dollars, and irrevocably changed his life — at least in terms of earning potential — in a negative way.
But that wasn't O'Sullivan's fault, or Florida's. O'Sullivan was very careful with Whitson as a freshman, alloting him just 97.1 innings over 19 starts — for perspective, Logan Shore threw 95.2 over 16 appearances, 15 of them starts, in 2014, and he played a more critical role for last year's Gators than Whiston did in 2011.
And still, Whitson's arm betrayed him.
What happened to Whitson despite a judicious limiting of his usage was just the best-laid plan going awry because human arms weren't designed for throwing baseballs. And so what would have been essentially a permanent black mark on Florida, had Whitson been abused, doesn't really even register as a blip: The greatest recruiting coup of his coaching career turning into a tragic tale of injury has actually burnished O'Sullivan's reputation for handling arms, if anything.
That's part of why Florida lands pitchers like Morales, studs who can be perfect for six innings on a Wednesday and still possibly have to work their way into a weekend rotation, in bunches. So is, as Fitt notes, O'Sullivan's commitment to using as much of his staff as possible, rather than leaning on workhorses and trying to get every last pitch out of every great arm.
That's the value proposition Florida under O'Sullivan presents to elite prep pitchers: "Come here, and you will get your opportunities and be taken care of in a way that helps you reach your professional dreams."
It may not have resulted in perfection on Wednesday.
But baseball seasons — and program legacies — don't come down to one day.