First off: Florida losing 4-3 to FSU in baseball on Tuesday a) on the fourth solo home run of a game b) in the first game in series history to go to the 12th inning and c) despite Florida coming into the game on a historic hot streak and FSU coming in off a four-game losing streak is just about the weirdest possible capper to the Seminoles' first sweep of Florida in football, men's basketball, and baseball in an academic year since Jimmy Carter was president.
This is how weird the Florida-FSU rivalry has gotten this year: The winning football team's quarterback threw four interceptions, the winning basketball team didn't score its own game-winning basket, and the rubber match game in the season series in baseball ended on a fourth solo home run ... by the team that had four runs total in its previous three games, not the team with a guy who had hit four home runs in a single game one week prior. And we got the first series sweep by either team in 30 years!
That all said, and the "But they're just midweek games!" excuses that get thrown out by both sides aside: Florida losing a game on the road against a good team in extra innings does highlight a few weaknesses of this club.
1. Florida has struggled on the road
Tuesday's loss dropped Florida to 28-10 on the year, but 5-7 away from home, and 4-6 in true road games. Florida State's arguably the best team that Florida's lost to on the road — Florida dropped another 4-3 decision at UCF in February that helped UCF leap into the top 10 of some rankings, but the Knights have cooled — but the Gators at least took this game into extra innings. There's far less to hang one's hat on in two losses each to Mississippi and Missouri, especially the Rebels, and especially because none of those games were one-run affairs.
It's mostly the bats that don't travel, for the record. Florida has scored more than five runs just once outside the state of Florida, and just twice in games away from McKethan Stadium — but Gators pitchers have practically matched that feat, allowing more than five runs just once outside the Sunshine State, and only three times away from the Mac. Florida hitters have just five home runs away from McKethan, too. A little more timely hitting on Tuesday night, and we're talking about Florida winning the season series over FSU today.
Florida's road record might yet improve in the near future, as two of the Gators' next three weekend series take them to Mississippi State and Georgia, teams that are under .500 in SEC play. But the Gators have a showdown at Vanderbilt in May, and will likely need to be competitive there to have a shot at an SEC title.
Beyond that, Florida's very much in line for a national seed that would keep it at home through Super Regional play in the NCAA Tournament, and so road woes might not be magnified in late May and June. For now, though, playing better away from home would be a good idea — it might secure a postseason homestand, after all.
2. Florida's pitching staff is still unproven
This is nitpicking, especially given that no Florida pitcher allowed more than one run on Tuesday, despite all six used by Kevin O'Sullivan recording at least three outs. Apart from Logan Shore, though, is there a single totally reliable arm in Florida's arsenal?
Shore (2.16), Alex Faedo (2.12), and Bobby Poyner (2.13) all have similarly tidy ERAs, and Faedo and Poyner would be my two picks behind Shore as potential sure things. But neither is likely to be a rotation solution. While Faedo has stepped up of late, including in an impressive Sunday start against South Carolina, he's a freshman, new to starting at this level, and may not stick there. And Poyner's made all of 15 starts in four seasons, and seems to have found his best role as a long reliever this year. Dane Dunning, effectively Florida's No. 2 starter at the moment, has been quite effective as a No. 3 starter, but one Saturday outing is a small sample for judging effectiveness in swing games of weekend series.
The Florida bullpen has a couple of strong pieces, as well, but they have flaws: Taylor Lewis, Florida's closer/fireman (and the fourth and final Florida pitcher with more than 10 innings of work and a sub-3.00 ERA), doesn't punch out batters like one would like (15 Ks in 22.0 innings), and Danny Young, the second-best short reliever on the staff, has coughed up 22 hits (on a .278 batting average allowed) and eight walks in his 19.1 innings. Every other Florida reliever with at least 13 innings of work has an ERA at or above Frank Rubio's 3.46, and let up at least one home run on the year.
That's not awful, especially not in the context of a game that has seen a surge in scoring and homers thanks to the new baseballs in use this season, but it's a far cry from the dominant staffs that powered Florida to three straight trips to the College World Series from 2010 to 2012. And this team definitely lacks a fourth starter to get five innings out of in a midweek game against Florida State ... mostly because it currently lacks a third starter, too.
3. And the home runs are hurting
It's been hard to manufacture runs against Florida. The Gators have a team fielding percentage of .985, best in the nation, and committed their first error in April on Tuesday night — but it didn't produce a run, and opponents have left 249 men on against the Gators. No Florida pitcher has yielded more than six doubles, or issued more than 18 walks — and A.J. Puk, the only one to have done both, is out of commission for the forseeable future.
But Florida pitchers have given up 31 home runs, and though not all of them were as painful as the four allowed to FSU on Tuesday, some of them have really hurt. Missouri slammed three (against Puk) in a 10-1 win, and a three-run blast helped the Tigers get a 5-3 victory; Mississippi got a 5-2 win thanks in part to a three-run shot (again, off Puk); Miami blew open its lone win against Florida with another three-run bomb; Tennessee handed Shore his lone truly bad start of the year by touching him for four homers in three innings.
It's incredibly obvious to say "Allowing home runs is bad and contributes to losing," but, well, it is. When Florida's pitchers have kept the ball in the park, the Gators have been pretty damn good; when they haven't, bad things have happened.
All that said, this is still a really good team
One loss to Florida State in a midweek game, and even the loss in the midweek season "series," doesn't really impact Florida's body of work all that much. Midweek games aren't as valuable as weekend series to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, and Florida has the nation's No. 6 RPI, which has the Gators solidly in the national seed range in early projections.
If Florida does get a national seed, and finds even one more reliable pitcher, I'd have to think chances of a return to Omaha are fairly good — and those aren't big ifs, just medium-sized ones.
The work required to do that begins this weekend in Starkville.