Last weekend, Florida's then-No. 1 baseball team — widely considered both the most talented roster in the country and the prohibitive favorite to win its first national title — dealt with its greatest adversity yet. The Gators had four multi-run innings in a 12-5 win in the first game of a three-game series in Kentucky, then scored just eight runs over their final 19 innings and blew 3-0 and 4-3 leads in a Sunday finale that condemned them to their fourth consecutive series loss to Kentucky.
On Tuesday, Florida avoided a third straight loss, but still couldn't get much from its bats. Freshman Jackson Kowar allowed just one run in five innings after allowing a solo homer in the first and Mike Rivera (a two-run homer) and Buddy Reed (an RBI triple) gave the Gators all the runs they would need in a 3-2 win over Florida State that clinches the season series between the Sunshine State rivals.
Florida's bullpen picked up where Kowar left off, too, with Brady Singer allowing only an unearned run — aided around the basepaths by a fielding error and a passed ball — and Shaun Anderson striking out two in a perfect ninth inning for his fourth save. And despite some talk of Florida showing weakness in its bullpen, the numbers simply don't bear that out: Kirby Snead, Anderson, and Singer all have ERAs under 2.50 and are striking out at least a batter an inning, and all of their innings have come in relief.
It's easy to look at Snead, Anderson, and Singer and not see a traditional closer, and that's fair. Of the three, Singer arguably has the best stuff, and that's why he's likely ticketed for a spot in Florida's rotation next year, once Logan Shore and A.J. Puk depart for MLB riches. But they get guys out, don't allow big hits or big innings, and consitute three quarters of a fine four-man pen along with Dane Dunning. That bullpen will probably expand to include Kowar once the postseason begins, too, and Scott Moss has been excellent in limited action, striking out 15 batters in just 7.1 innings of work.
And Florida's starters are fine, too. Logan Shore's been as good as he has ever been, Alex Faedo has pitched above his head as a Sunday starter, and A.J. Puk's notably up-and-down year has still only yielded a 3.49 ERA. Those three guys ought to be Florida's weekend rotation, and probably in the righty-lefty-righty configuration they're in; proposing a freshman making spot starts or changing things up for some marginal benefit strikes me as overthinking things.
No, the worry ("worry") for the Gators has to be — for now, at least — the spotty production of their offense.
Three runs in a midweek game against FSU — which used typical Saturday starter Drew Carlton for the first two innings on Tuesday night after a rained-out weekend series caused him to miss a start, then went to Mike Martin's bullpen for the rest of the game in Jacksonville after Rivera homered off him in the second inning — isn't a truly worrisome output considering context. Teams tend to either lock in against iffy pitching or lock up against better pitching in midweek games, producing slugfests, blowouts, or pitchers' duels instead of back-and-forth affairs, and Florida won a pitchers' duel last night after arguably doing the same in last week's 6-0 blanking of the Seminoles.
The problem is that Florida hasn't been firing on all cylinders for more than just one game, and is having to do more to manufacture runs than pound pitchers. Just three Gators (Rivera, Peter Alonso, and Deacon Liput) are slugging more than .500, and while only three regulars did so in 2015, two of them were Harrison Bader and JJ Schwarz, who combined for 32 doubles and 35 home runs. Through 27 games, or a little more than a third of what is likely to be a 70-game season, Rivera has six homers to lead Florida, and Alonso has nine doubles ... but no one else has more than seven doubles (Liput and Dalton Guthrie) or four home runs (Alonso).
And pitchers have largely been able to neutralize Schwarz, who had perhaps the best freshman season by a Gators hitter ever, by giving him nothing to hit in this sophomore campaign. He's drawn 23 walks and been hit three times, giving him almost as many trips to the basepaths for patience and pain as he has collected with his 27 hits. Schwarz is now leading Florida in on-base percentage, and has seen that stat jump almost 50 points since 2015, so that's not all bad — but Schwarz isn't a leadoff hitter, so getting on base typically isn't his primary goal at the plate, and his slugging percentage is almost 150 points lower than it was last season.
That's affecting the Gators, as is a general lack of pop. Since a 9-2 win over Harvard on March 12, Florida has scored more than six runs just twice, and scored more than four runs just four times. Even with all the necessary caveats — that production came during a 17-game winning streak, and Florida is 7-3 during that span — it's still arguably an underperformance of the Gators' true talent level.
If that feels like picking nits, well, it is. Florida is a colossus this year, thanks to brilliant recruiting and strong development by Kevin O'Sullivan, and that these Gators have the capacity to disappoint en route to a 24-3 record, season series wins over Miami and FSU, and the No. 2 or No. 3 spot in national rankings speaks to how absurd the expectations are for this team. It's good enough to win every game it plays, whether with wipeout sliders or lights-out hitting.
If Florida struggles in this weekend's showdown series with new national No. 1 Texas A&M, though — and especially if the Gators struggle to break through at the plate — some of the concerns about whether this team is as complete as anticipated will get a little bit louder.