Over the last couple of years, I've used the Florida-Florida State midweek meetings to sort of jump-start our baseball coverage here. They come late enough in the season that Florida's non-conference series have already more or less gone by the wayside, and they pit two talented programs against each other in pitched games in which the intensity of the game more than makes up for the lack of weekend starters.
Tuesday night's first game of three between the Gators and Seminoles this year went to Florida by a 14-8 margin. And it showed all the strengths and weaknesses of Kevin O'Sullivan's current crop of Gators.
Florida never trailed after an inning in this game, answering two FSU runs in the top of the first with five of its own in the bottom of the first. And the game was never tied after a full inning, either, with the Gators putting up three runs in the bottom of the fifth after the 'Noles rallied to tie the affair in the top of the frame.
That's attributible to a fantastic offense that pounded FSU pitching for 16 hits, half for extra bases. JJ Schwarz deposited a three-run shot in the left field bleachers in the seventh inning, and Harrison Bader had three RBI and a triple, also narrowly missing a towering three-run homer of his own by slicing a shot to left wide of the foul pole ... and into the parking lot between McKethan Stadium and the O'Connell Center.
FSU helped the Gators out significantly on defense, committing five errors, three from Dylan Busby. But only two of the 14 Florida runs — almost as many as the 15 the Gators pushed across in three games against Florida State in 2014 — were counted as unearned: FSU mistakes on the mound and great hitting from the Gators (who recorded just five strikeouts in 43 plate appearances) were the reason this game was won.
And yet: Florida's inability to put away the 'Noles until late, despite leads, speaks to the flux in which Gators pitchers outside that weekend rotation reside. Florida's trio of weekend starters — Logan Shore, A.J. Puk, and Dane Dunning — appears set, with Shore being shelled by Tennessee last Friday ranking as his worst start as a Gator and registering as aberrational.
Beyond those three guys, it's hard to be sure of any other Florida pitcher's ability to prevent runs. Eric Hanhold yielded five earned runs in 2.1 innings on Tuesday, and needed 61 pitches to get those seven outs; his ERA is now 7.11 in 2015, and that's not a Beyoncé tribute. Brett Morales, who threw six perfect innings earlier this year, has a 2.63 ERA thanks to his other four appearances, including a perfect one-out finish to the eighth on Tuesday. Aaron Rhodes has a 3.97 ERA despite filthy stuff. About the only Gators pitchers who are primarily bullpen arms and have had unquestioned success this year are Danny Young (eight appearances, 0.63 ERA) and Alex Faedo (1.50 ERA over 14.1 innings), and Young's still allowed eight runs to score from a fireman's role, so it's not as if he's been totally lights-out.
Puk's 3.70 ERA isn't great, either, but it's inflated by a bad start to the year, and O'Sullivan sandwiching him between Shore and Dunning makes Florida's righty-lefty-righty rotation that much trickier for opponents. And that rotation was an expected strength; Florida's bullpen was, too, and it hasn't been a difference-maker for the Gators yet this year.
Still, though, the Gators have more than made up for that at the plate. Through 22 games, they have scored 166 runs, more than half of the 289 the Gators mustered in all 63 games of the 2014 campaign, and that's with presumptive cleanup hitter Peter Alonso still out of commission with a broken foot. If he hits when he returns (likely by the end of March), Florida could have a truly terrifying lineup.
And the Gators have just two major position player contributors, in Bader and Richie Martin, who stole home on a slip-and-score play Tuesday night...
...who are MLB Draft-eligible in 2015.
Florida's core, in other words, is solid and precocious, meaning that the Gators are set up once again for trips to Omaha. This is a top-five team, without a doubt, and if it can survive a wickedly tough SEC schedule, it should be one of the top national seeds come the NCAA Tournament.
And if the back end of Florida's pitching staff can raise its game to the level of the Gators' rotation and bats, that core may help the Gators raise a trophy or two before long.