Entering Tuesday, the Florida Gators baseball team had been scuffling on the diamond of late.
And that’s putting it kindly.
Florida’s last two weekend series had both been lopsided losses, with the Gators managing to take just the second half of a doubleheader from Mississippi State in the midst of series losses to the Bulldogs in Gainesville and to Vanderbilt in Nashville. Florida’s vaunted pitching staff had been getting touched up, too, with Tyler Dyson allowing two earned runs in six innings and getting the win in that 4-2 victory against Mississippi State being the only Gators start with fewer than three earned runs over those two weekends.
The Bulldogs outscored the Gators 18-13, twice winning games while allowing five runs; the Commodores dominated in Nashville, outscoring Florida 34-6 and trailing for just six outs over the course of the series.
And in between, Florida’s bullpen did little to assuage fears in a 13-8 win against Jacksonville. In that game, Nolan Crisp threw four scoreless innings and was replaced on the mound with a 8-0 lead, but had to watch as his relief gave up eight runs — only five earned — over the final five innings of play, narrowing Florida’s lead to 11-8 at one juncture before a two-run Brady McConnell homer gave the Gators breathing room.
In total, Florida had allowed 67 runs over its previous eight games, 60 over its past six, and 42 over its last four entering last night’s contest, far from the sort of work one would hope for from a team with championship aspirations. And that sort of generosity to opposing offenses would seem to be a bad thing for any team facing a fellow championship aspirant in a midweek game away from home.
Except, of course, that Florida faced Florida State on Tuesday night — and it turns out that the Gators’ recent domination of the Seminoles meant a lot more than Florida’s recent struggles did in Jacksonville.
How else can one explain Crisp, suddenly seemingly Florida’s most reliable pitcher, stanching the bleeding with a strong five-inning outing marred only by a two-run homer?
How else can one explain Florida State falling behind, responding with that two-run homer, and still managing to lose a game without allowing an earned run?
How else could FSU put two runners on in the bottom of the seventh and eighth innings via a combined one hit, but still only manage to get two flyouts out of those situations.
I mean: I don’t know, honestly.
It feels cheap and wrong for me to attribute Florida’s rivalry-record 10-game winning streak over the Seminoles to some mystic ability to be clutch or psychological superiority ... but then FSU gives up four unearned runs to a team that was having problems scoring any sort of run, allowing three after what could have been a third out in the top of the seventh, and you start to believe in mystical things, even if FSU going fairly quietly in the ninth, sealing Florida’s 4-2 win, made plenty of sense.
Florida’s winning streak against the Seminoles is the first double-digit streak in series history, and has been so lopsided that FSU’s Mike Martin is now, unbelievably, just .500 against Florida all-time, at 76-76.
Should Florida — which has now won the regular-season series against FSU for the fourth straight year and sixth time in the last eight years — proceed to sweep the Seminoles with a win in Tallahassee on April 9, the Gators would be set up to send the manager with the most wins in college baseball history into retirement with more losses than wins against his primary rival, despite his personal record against that rival having been more than 15 games north of .500 earlier this decade.
It is hard to say there is much predictive value to derive from Tuesday’s result for Florida’s next weekend series: Crisp won’t be starting, Florida is playing an uneven Alabama team that isn’t on the level of the Seminoles or the Gators’ two previous weekend foes, and it’s not as if that 20-7 win over FSU two weeks ago did much to propel the Gators into their series with Mississippi State.
But if an FSU team that has College World Series-level talent can’t beat Florida when holding a huge lead over the Gators or in the midst of acute struggles, can it beat Florida at all?
The existing evidence points rather strongly toward no.