Last year, Florida baseball's postseason started with promise.
In the SEC Tournament, the top-seeded Gators dropped their first game to Kentucky, then rebounded and surged through the losers' bracket to get to the championship game against LSU. UF entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 overall seed, and with high hopes, but ended up hosting a historically tough regional and scoring only two runs in back-to-back losses to end its season.
This season's team is different, and quite possibly better.
As the 2015 regular season ends, Florida enters the 2015 SEC Tournament as the No. 4 seed, having won 40 games and again earning a first-round bye. The Gators are among the top five in the conference in nearly every team batting category, and have been led at the plate by the consistency of Josh Tobias.
The senior third baseman has always flashed a good glove on the hot corner — and he showcased it again this season, only committing one error in 50 games played — but as a senior, his bat has caught up, making him a legitimate MLB Draft prospect. Tobias had a career batting average of .269 before raking as a .366 clip in 2015, and he leads the team in doubles. For power, Florida leans on junior Harrison Bader (12 home runs) and freshman JJ Schwarz (14), the only Gators with double-digit dingers this season.
On the mound, junior Logan Shore is again the ace. His 82 innings pitched makes him the only UF pitcher who has thrown more than 55, and he holds a 2.83 ERA. And while Shore has been Florida's Friday starter all year, the rotation behind him has been in flux.
So it's a good thing that A.J. Puk seems to be coming of age. Head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said Monday that now is the time he wants his players playing at their best, and Puk is certainly doing that: He had a rocky start last Friday night against Auburn, but prior to that, he had been fantastic in his previous two starts, allowing a combined seven hits while striking out 13 against Georgia and defending national champion Vanderbilt. Puk being not just a serviceable No. 2 starter but one who can even be flat-out dominant gives UF the potential to be very dangerous deep into June.
Beyond the big names, Florida returns many of the cast of characters from last season's postseason flop, but is hoping a year of seasoning for its bats and an infusion of freshman talents like Schwarz will help it have a better result and make the fourth trip to the College World Series of O'Sullivan's tenure in Gainesville.
On Monday's SEC coaches teleconference, O'Sullivan announced Dane Dunning will start today against Arkansas (9 p.m., SEC Network or ESPN3). Arkansas has not played UF yet in 2015, but will come into today's second round matchup having won eight of its last 11. The Hogs are hot, and have an outside shot to host a regional, but they've got to go deep this weekend to so if not win the tournament outright.
And for this Florida team, throwing Dunning prompts a classic question: How much does the conference tournament actually matter?
Skimming some of the weekly bracketology postings, it's clear UF is currently a consensus national seed, meaning they're in line to host both a regional and a Super Regional. Our friends at House of Sparky have the Gators as the No. 6 national seed, as does D1Baseball.com. The folks at Cowboys Ride For Free have them No. 7, and Baseball America has them No. 8. An early exit this week seems to be the only thing that could conceivably bounce UF out of the top seed group, and that might still not be enough.
So letting a No. 3 starter take the bump to begin postseason play suggests Florida isn't gunning to go unbeaten in the SEC Tournament, but hoping to sustain momentum.
"I think you wanna be playing your best baseball at the end of the year and I think this tournament forces you to be clean. If you don't play clean you'll be back on the bus going home," O'Sullivan said Monday. "I think the level of competition certainly prepares you for regional play and every year it's the same, the league is as deep as it's ever been. Maybe four or five teams, maybe, have separated themselves but in the middle of the pack anyone can beat anyone. The depth of this league certainly shows up in the tournament."
All three of O'Sullivan's College World Series teams made it to at least the semifinal round of the SECs. That, of course, doesn't mean the Gators can't play deep into June if they don't play deep into this weekend, but because the SEC is so good this year (four teams should host regional play, and as many as five could), it's a litmus test for how Florida will play when the pressure's on. The Gators may be in a potential win-or-go-home scenario against any of seven other projected NCAA Tournament-worthy teams.
While a flameout wouldn't hurt Florida's NCAA Tournament stock all that much, a few wins would go a long way toward building the confidence necessary to carry the Gators to the College World Series.