Over the weekend, after the Florida Gators topped a top-10 Vanderbilt team — by scoring eight runs and winning by at least four runs for the third time in three days — I sent a cheeky tweet about the Gators’ hilarious No. 2 ranking.
I wonder whether @GatorsBB winning six straight games against top-10 teams will be enough for voters to elevate them past Oregon State, which has lost three of four, to No. 1 in the polls.— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) April 1, 2018
I mean, Oregon State is named Oregon State and Florida is not, so it's a valid question.
On Monday, the Gators made a clean sweep of the four major college baseball polls, moving up to No. 1 in rankings from D1baseball.com, Baseball America, USA TODAY Coaches Poll, and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Oregon State did retain a first-place vote in the USA TODAY poll after dropping a weekend series to Utah, but it appears that most of the closest observers of college baseball have come to the realization that Florida is, at least at this moment, the nation’s best college baseball team.
To which I say: No friggin’ duh.
The Gators have won seven straight games, the first six of them coming against a trio of top-10 outfits — Arkansas, Florida State, and Vanderbilt. And they have won them in wildly disparate ways: Florida limited the hitter-rich Hogs to just six runs in the final two games of a weekend series that Arkansas began with a six-run outburst against Friday starter Brady Singer, silenced Florida State in a 1-0 win, and thundered past Vanderbilt by scoring 26 runs and launching five homers against maybe the premier program for pitching in college baseball.
Of course, granting Vanderbilt that status would mean being charitable to a program that has lagged behind Florida itself in that regard in recent years, and the Gators are No. 13 nationally in team ERA. Florida is also No. 19 in runs per game, fourth in homers, and one of just two schools — Kentucky is the other — with two players who have already socked 10 or more dingers this year, with Wil Dalton and Jonathan India each sitting at 11 for 2018.
Oh, and Florida is third nationally in fielding percentage. And the Gators have won all of their weekend series. And Florida’s only midweek losses came against a UCF team that is 21-9 thus far this year, while it has four midweek wins over teams ranked higher than UCF in RPI (FSU, Florida Atlantic, and Florida Gulf Coast).
About the only thing Florida hasn’t already done this year — and it is the first week of April, remember — is win a big series on the road. But it’s not Florida’s fault that Miami and South Carolina, each of which the Gators have taken two of three from on the road, are not the great programs they once were, and Florida will yet get chances to go win big series away from home at Tennessee, Kentucky, and Texas A&M.
And this is where the hard part comes in.
Florida must know, by now, that this is a team capable of winning a national championship. It has many of the same players who did win one, one year ago; it has added players, like Dalton, that have improved this team; it has gotten improvements from players, like India, who are clearly playing better ball than they were last spring. The Gators have proven superior against as tough a stretch of opponents as any team will play this year over the last week, and have proven they can win slugfests and pitchers’ duels.
So what is there left for this team to do but chase records and history and titles? And what kind of pressure does that put on both Kevin O’Sullivan and the team itself?
I think Florida can make the College World Series this season — can even make the championship series — and still have this season be declared a failure if the Gators do not hoist another national title trophy. And, because of the nature of college baseball’s postseason, I think Florida could make it to Omaha as the nation’s best team and the best Florida team ever and still fail to win it all.
Winning a championship is so, so hard — and though these Gators understand how hard it is more than any to have come before them, it is entirely possible they will come up short, because the best team doesn’t always win and the future is never as clear as the present. Florida — the Gators that comprise Florida, really — will have to stay healthy, stay hungry, stay committed to doing whatever they have done to get to this point.
The Gators are as close to the mountaintop as you can get in early April.
But that’s still just a base camp. And the hardest part of the climb is yet to come.