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After sweep, Florida baseball sits atop SEC standings with two weeks remaining

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The Gators have stormed back to the forefront of the SEC — and they’re not totally healthy yet.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Florida vs Virginia Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, in a piece touting the Florida Gators baseball team’s recent improvements and the promise they held, I wrote this:

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.

This weekend, Florida won with that offense.

It tallied 11 runs in one of the former games on Friday, as the Gators used a seven-run frame engorged by a Ryan Larson grand slam to back up six shutout innings from Alex Faedo in a breezy 11-2 win over Ole Miss. Then, on Saturday, Florida won on an off night for Brady Singer, who yielded four runs — only three earned — over the first four innings against the Rebels. The Gators responded to the 4-0 hole that greeted them in the bottom of the fifth by mashing Ole Miss from that point on, plating all seven runs and recording 10 of their 13 hits in the final four innings en route to a 7-4 comeback win.

On Sunday, with a chance to make their move up the SEC standings on a wild week of conference play a little more impressive, Florida paired good starting pitching with lumber work once again. Jackson Kowar allowed just two runs over 6.2 innings, and got six runs of support before leaving, and closer extraordinaire Michael Byrne tied the school record for saves by coming in to record his 13th of the year — and second of the weekend — after freshman Garrett Milchin gave up two runs to narrow the game to its final margin of 6-4.

I also wrote this on Friday, of the point in early April when SEC also-ran Tennessee had just taken two of three from the Gators:

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.

After sweeping the Rebels, Florida made that record 15-2, and its conference mark over the last month a stellar 10-2.

And after their three wins and some help elsewhere, Florida is atop the SEC.

The Gators sit alone in the catbird seat in the SEC East, thanks to Kentucky faltering in a home series against Georgia. The Bulldogs shocked the Wildcats, ranked in the top five nationally, by taking the first and last games of the set to hand Kentucky just its second SEC series loss of the season.

With its sweep, Florida moved to 16-8 in SEC play, a full game clear of Kentucky’s 15-9 mark.

But that wasn’t the only stunning set of results in conference play.

Five teams in the rugged SEC West entered the weekend with at least 12 wins — but just two, LSU and Mississippi State, won their series, with Arkansas, Auburn, and Texas A&M all failing to do so.

In the Aggies’ defense, that series loss did come to Mississippi State, which now shares the SEC lead with Florida at 16-8. But Arkansas dropped two of three to Tennessee in Knoxville.

And Auburn? Auburn got swept by an execrable Alabama team in excruciating fashion: Two one-run losses in a Saturday doubleheader created by inclement weather on Friday sealed the series loss, and an 11-9 loss in 15 innings on Sunday salted the wound. The Tigers had entered the weekend with a 14-7 SEC record, tied for best in the league with Kentucky and Mississippi State; they now sit fifth in their own division, with a road trip to LSU looming.

That challenging series and the slew of similar ones remaining for SEC West teams, help demonstrate just how well this weekend broke for the Gators. LSU and Mississippi State still have to play each other, and LSU has Auburn before that. Texas A&M and Arkansas meet in the final week of the season, and Arkansas sees Vandy this weekend.

Florida, on the other hand, has just a road trip to Alabama — which improved to 5-19 in SEC play, still two games behind 13th-place Georgia, with its sweep — and a season-ending series with Kentucky to go.

Three of the SEC’s top four teams — Florida, Kentucky, and Mississippi State — should be able to get series wins over Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia — the SEC’s three worst teams — this weekend, especially if they’re on alert after those cellar-dwellers’ triumphs this past weekend. (Kentucky, especially, ought to be raring to go, having already been a victim of one of those bottom-feeders.)

But of the paths before those three teams, you have to pick Florida’s — at Alabama, home against Kentucky — as the easiest on paper. And LSU, the fourth of that top four, will be playing six games against ranked teams to close out its SEC slate.

Things broke right for Florida, for sure, this weekend, and the next two set up nicely for the Gators to continue capitalizing on that good fortune.

A return to full health might be the next boost the Gators get, too.

Austin Langworthy’s return to the lineup continued apace over the weekend, as he scored five runs despite going 1-for-11 over the series, reaching base three times on balls and once on an error. But he was joined by another bigger bat, as Jonathan India saw his first action in nearly a month, and put together a 4-for-9 performance with two RBI that lifted his season batting average from .226 to .242. India played the field on Sunday, too, lining up at third base for the first time since March, and fielding his four chances perfectly.

If India can stay healthy enough to remain at third, that gives Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan some much-needed flexibility at his corner infield spots. Christian Hicks has largely held down the hot corner since India’s injury, and has done so with minimal incident — but Hicks is also another player who can be put into the mix at first, where Keenan Bell and JJ Schwarz have platooned in recent weeks. Schwarz, a natural catcher, has been fine on balance as a first baseman, but his ungainly fielding leaves plenty to be desired, and he’s better behind the plate; Bell is a player O’Sullivan needs to have in his lineups, and a freshman outfielder less trusted than some of the older hands Florida plays deep.

In an ideal world, Florida would be able to accomodate those four players and spell Schwarz occasionally — and not just from his catching duties, but from playing the field, generally. And that world may yet be ours, if Mike Rivera can get back into the lineup and then into the tools of ignorance in coming weeks.

For now, though, O’Sullivan — an inveterate tinkerer, for better and worse — has more options than he did a week ago, even if he takes reintegrating India slowly. (This weekend was not a particularly good argument for caution with India, who paired with Schwarz to power the Saturday comeback, but O’Sullivan’s rarely been aggressive with players returning from injury, and should be commended for his patience in that regard.)

And Florida’s offense revving to life — the Gators scored more than four runs in all three games of a series against an SEC team for the first time this year over the weekend, and did so against an Ole Miss staff that was leading the SEC in ERA — gives O’Sullivan and his pitchers more margin for error than they have had for months.

Thus a nine-game winning streak. Thus a lofty perch on the SEC standings. Thus a renewal of faith for fans, and maybe for a talented team that has scuffled and struggled more than most of O’Sullivan’s talented teams during this golden era of Florida Gators baseball.

This is good, what Florida is doing. Where Florida is going? That might be better.