A little less than a month ago, there was really good reason to worry about the Florida Gators baseball team.
On April 8, Florida had just dropped a second consecutive one-run game in extra innings to SEC cellar-dweller Tennessee to seal a series loss to the Vols. Those two wins remain a third of Tennessee’s wins in SEC play, and are a quarter of the Vols’ road triumphs this season.
The next day brought a Sunday win that salvaged the series, avoiding a sweep at home, but Florida’s SEC record at that moment stood at 6-6, and even in a deep and brutal conference, it seemed unlikely that the Gators would be able to scratch together enough wins to compete for a title.
Since that day, Florida has put together a sterling 12-2 record — and has vaulted from 6-6 to 13-8 in conference play, good enough to lurk one game back of 14-7 Kentucky with two weekends of the regular season remaining.
And, maybe better than that, the Gators have found a new and better way to win.
Over that 12-2 span, Florida has finally gotten its bats going this season. Eight of those games featured six or more Gators runs, and their 82 runs over the 14 games is a clip of 5.9 runs per game — almost a run and a half more than the 4.5 Florida had managed over its first 31 contests.
That’s a healthy, portentious surge. 5.9 runs per game would be good for only a rank somewhere in the 110s nationally, but Florida is at 5.0 runs per game for the season after this upswing, and that’s only good for No. 221. The 4.5 runs per game mark had the Gators in the nation’s bottom 50 offenses, a pitifully poor showing for an offense with a lot of aspiring pros in the lineup.
The primary catalysts for change have been an precocious freshman’s return and some more patient upperclassmen.
While that 12-2 mark obviously picks up from an arbitrary starting point, it also coincides with the return of Austin Langworthy, who missed a month with a broken bone in his hand, but has played in all 14 of those games since returning to the lineup, and hit safely in 12 of them.
Langworthy’s splashy first game back — in which he stroked a bases-clearing double to help put a wild win over Vanderbilt to bed — may have helped blow up his legend beyond what he really is as a player, given that he’s only hitting .281, and has just eight extra-base hits on the year. But he is fifth on Florida’s roster in batting average and third in on-base percentage among regulars, and has worked his way up to the No. 3 slot in the order, where he appears inked in for the forseeable future. He’s been a reliable contributor at worst, and Florida needed one of those desperately in the early days of April, so it’s hard to say Langworth hasn’t been a much-needed boost.
If Langworthy has been a shot in the arm, though, the work of much-maligned junior JJ Schwarz and others in recent weeks has been a steadying shoulder for Florida’s offense.
Schwarz, specifically, has been heating up since the series finale at Vanderbilt, when he clouted a grand slam to drive home a season-high four RBI, making up for an 0-for-8 performance in the first two games of that three-game set. In his last 12 games, Schwarz has: homered three times; knocked in four runs twice; recorded seven of his 22 walks on the year; had four multi-hit games; failed to record a hit just twice; and not reached base only once.
That’s close to the production most have hoped for from Schwarz since his legendary freshman season, and a sea change from his underwhelming play for the first two months of this junior campaign. Schwarz’s batting average is up to .261 from .228 at the beginning of that 10-game stretch, and his on-base percentage is now at .344 — not a stellar mark, and still about 50 points off his freshman and sophomore rates, but significantly up from the depths of his struggles this year.
And having the biggest bat in the lineup — for all his issues, Schwarz somehow has 35 RBI on the year, 14 more than any other Gator — looking like a threat and being held on the shoulder long enough to get bases on balls again feels like a psychic boost, given how often Schwarz had scuffled in key situations early on this year. Add his return to competence to Langworthy’s return, and Florida suddenly has the sort of lineup that can reliably get run totals that relieve some of the pressure on their three-ace starting rotation and limited bullpen.
Of course, other upperclassmen not named Schwarz have done some of the heavy lifting on offense. Junior Christian Hicks has five multi-hit games in Florida’s last 14 — six in the last 15 — and just smacked two homers to help the Gators top Jacksonville. Senior Ryan Larson is still, improbably, leading Florida in batting average and slugging percentage, even though that batting average has fallen from .370 following a 5-for-5 Thursday at Vandy to .337 today.
And other youngsters not named Langworthy have been potent all year. Sophomore Nelson Maldonado is second to Larson among Gators in both batting average and slugging, and first in on-base percentage. Freshman Keenan Bell has rebounded from a March marked by a swoon and missed games to stay at or around the top five in all of those categories.
There are other reasons to think things might turn for the better, too. Jonathan India and Mike Rivera are working back from injuries, and while Maldonado left the game against Jacksonville with a shoulder injury, it’s not clear how serious it is.
Florida could have close to its full complement of hitters available and much of that contingent in form as postseason play nears, in other words. And that should be music to the ears of Kevin O’Sullivan, fans, and the Gators’ pitchers, all of whom have lamented an offense that has been Florida’s major weakness this year.
That weakness is relative, of course: It hasn’t prevented the Gators from sweeping Miami, Florida State, and Georgia, or from taking series from LSU, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. Florida is in line to host regional play, and has a decent shot at being a national seed with a strong close to the regular season.
And even if the offense reverts to what it was for the first three months of the season, Florida could still pitch its way to Omaha. That’s a reflection of how good Alex Faedo, Brady Singer, and Jackson Kowar can be, even if they haven’t been quite as lights-out in recent weeks as they were early on.
But the ideal for this team has been finding a way to get enough offense to make those pitchers’ gems into easy wins, and their off nights into close games — and that appears to be what is happening at the moment.
If Florida can keep this up, it may have two more months of moments this year.