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Florida 12, FSU 6: Gators continue strong start to title defense

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Florida might be even better than it was a year ago. And that’s thanks to the Gators’ bats.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Florida vs LSU Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Longtime Alligator Army readers will know that we tend to use the Florida Gators’ midweek games against Florida State as a means of dropping in on a baseball season in progress and seeing how the Gators are doing by using the best measuring stick available prior to SEC play.

Dropping in after Tuesday night’s comeback and offensive explosion that gave Florida a school-record sixth straight win over the Seminoles just happens to make this year’s first such look at the Gators of the big diamond look like bragging about historical dominance of a program that was long the ruler of the Sunshine State and has been passed up by a superpower.

Whoops.

The Gators flexed their muscles and displayed their patience on Tuesday night in hammering the ‘Noles, getting two homers from the resurgent Jonathan India and stitching together a seven-run fifth inning in which they batted around despite notching just three extra-base hits — all doubles — in the frame.

That fifth inning, which featured a sacrifice fly, an RBI groundout, a walk, and two hit batters, blew the game open for the Gators. But if it wasn’t that inning, it might have been another: Florida tallied 14 hits and worked five walks, and dinged five of FSU’s six pitchers for an earned run.

Freshman Jordan Butler had his worst start of the year, allowing four earned runs on three homers in 2.2 innings of work, but Florida made sure he wouldn’t be tagged with the loss by storming back from 2-0 and 4-1 deficits and scoring in five of eight turns at bat.

That speaks to the new strength of this Florida team: A balanced lineup that can make headway against even good pitching from practically any spot in the order. Six different Gators are hitting .328 or better on the season so far, led by India’s scorching .377/.500/.811, and 10 Gators have at least one home run. The addition of JUCO slugger Wil Dalton to Florida’s lineup has helped, yes, but the Gators are mostly getting good-to-great seasons from players who have been good-to-great throughout their Florida careers.

India’s fantastic performance so far this year is a massive improvement on his sophomore slump a year ago: He’s already matched his homer total from 2017, and is hitting more than 100 points better. JJ Schwarz’s senior year, so far, is also much better than a junior campaign marked by clutchness more than consistency: He, too, is nearly 100 points better at the plate than in 2017, and his 10 extra-base hits — including a triple! — are almost half of the 24 he recorded over 69 games in 2017. Add in a unforeseen power surges from Nick Horvath (.345 with eight doubles and two homers) and Blake Reese (.328 with 10 extra-base hits, more than triple the three career extra-base hits he had prior to this junior season) and a great start from Nelson Maldonado (.343 with 15 RBI), and it becomes clear that more than half of Florida’s lineup is mashing right now.

But even Keenan Bell and Austin Langworthy, currently scuffling and batting under .250 as sophomores after promising freshman campaigns, can do damage, as each did by recording an RBI hit in the fifth on Tuesday. Bell’s was a two-run double, boosting him to 14 RBI on the season; he’s one of seven Gators with at least 13 RBI in 2018, and while no Gator is over 17 RBI, that’s one statistic where balance is perfectly acceptable when it comes with quantity.

Right now, Florida is triple-slashing .299/.381/.502 as a team, and scoring 7.4 runs a game. Last year, when Florida’s pitching carried a more anemic offense to a College World Series title? The Gators hit .259, and averaged just over five runs a contest.

So the offense is much, much better right now, albeit against mostly lesser competition — Miami and Florida State are the two teams with even vague hopes of making a deep postseason run that Florida has seen thus far.

But the truly scary thing is that Florida’s pitching is as good as ever — or better.

The Gators have sent 10 pitchers to the mound for 5.1 or more innings this year — and seven of them have ERAs of 2.08 or better. The junior duo of Brady Singer (4-0, 2.08 ERA, 25 Ks in 26.0 IP) and Jackson Kowar (3-0, 2.05 ERA, 27 Ks in 26.1 IP) has been as good as advertised, and 2017 College World Series hero Tyler Dyson has been even better as Florida’s Sunday starter, one-upping his upperclassman rotation mates with a 1.07 ERA over 25.1 innings and 24 strikeouts of his own.

And if those aces should ever falter, Kevin O’Sullivan has his customarily well-stocked arsenal of arms to turn to in relief. Stopper/closer Michael Byrne has yet to allow an earned run in 2018 over nine appearances and 12.1 innings, and has yielded just eight hits. Freshman Tommy Mace has let up just eight hits in 15.0 innings, and, despite two of those being homers, still has a 1.80 ERA; freshman Nick Long has given up just two hits, both singles, in 5.1 innings of work.

Hell, even though midweek starters and weekend relievers Butler and Jack Leftwich have less tidy ERAs than most, those ERAs are still plenty respectable — 3.92 and 5.17, respectively — for freshmen. And both Butler and Leftwich are fanning better than a batter per inning, showing the sort of punchout prowess that has often foreshadowed future work in weekend rotations.

Last year, Florida’s team ERA of 3.45 led the SEC. This year? The Gators are at 2.29 — and have yet to allow more than seven runs in a weekend series, with the Seminoles’ four-homer, six-run performance on Tuesday registering as the second-best run-scoring day any outfit has had against Florida.

With a balanced, potent lineup and a deep, experienced pitching staff, Florida would seem to have not just the primary ingredients necessary to make a successful national title defense, but also the capability to be better than it was a year before on the way.

And though the Gators have a long way to go to get back to Omaha, much less to get to dogpile as the sport’s top dogs again, there’s very little to dislike about how they have started this season.