The Florida Gators, often the little brother to traditional baseball powers, Florida State and Miami, have arrived. This year's team may have arrived a year ahead of schedule, but now that they are there, it's World Series or bust.
The Gators have won the regular season SEC Championship with a 22-8 record. That's the most SEC wins for a Gator baseball team since I can remember. The 2005 team which went all the way to the Final Weekend of the CWS only went 20-10. This year, the SEC is looking at possibly putting 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament, which would be a record.
This team has come up huge every time the pressure was ramped up a notch. This should bode well for the post season. Typically, the Gators have trouble beating Miami. This year's team went to Coral Gables and took two of three. That was a good start.
Typically, the Gators are a bit short on quality pitching. They will usually have a great starting pitcher they can count on to win on Saturdays and a decent one to give them a chance on Fridays. But get into the bullpen and the Sunday starter and the bats better be hot. Not so this year.
Even when projected No. 1 starter Tommy Toledo took a vicious line drive to the face early in the season, the Gator's pitching staff has been rock solid. Alex Panteliodis, Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson have given the Gators a stellar three man weekend rotation. All of them have ERAs under 4.00. All of them have a good win-loss record. Panteliodis is 8-2 with a 3.32 ERA. Randall is 6-3 with a 2.99. Johnson, who is also a good hitter that will often DH, is 5-3 with a 3.62 ERA.
These guys all stepped it up when Toledo went down. The bullpen also had to pick up the slack when Johnson moved into the rotation. They have done an outstanding job. In fact, Florida is 33-0 in games they have led after the fourth inning.
Kevin Chapman is lights out as a closer posting a 3 -0 record with 10 saves and a 1.14 ERA. And oh by the way, he also took a line drive to the head while standing in the dugout. He came back to get a save the next day.
Typical Gator baseball teams also do not play well on the road in the SEC. Not so this year. After dropping the first two road games of the year at Ole Miss, this Gator team never lost another road series. That includes a three game series at South Carolina to end the season with everything on the line.
The two teams went in tied for first place in the SEC. The 'Cocks fans were out in force too drawing over 8,000 fans per game. The Gators went in and took the series the first two nights behind great pitching and timely hitting.
This team can also play defense. The Gators fielding percentage is .977. To be a good defensive team it is widely known that you have to be good "up the middle". Between catcher Mike Zunino, shortstop Nolan Fontana, second baseman Josh Adams and centerfielder Matt den Dekker, the lowest fielding percentage is Adams' .982.
The Gators also have two home run threats with den Dekker and Austin Maddox. Maddox leads with 17 and den Dekker has 11. Seven Gator hitters have over .300 batting averages as well.
The SEC Tournament has not been kind to the Orange and Blue in recent history. The last time the Gator team won it was 1991. They go into this tournament as the number one seed. Of course, that means an opening round game against defending National Champion LSU. Such is life in the SEC. If the Gators make a strong showing in the SEC, look out.
Every weekend I kept thinking "is this the weekend where we wake up?" First it was No. 5 Arkansas coming to town. The Hogs won the Friday night game and I thought "here it comes." But the Gators then took the series winning on Saturday and Sunday.
Then it was defending champ LSU in for three. The Gators always have trouble with LSU. But this year, Florida swept the Tigers for the first time since 1996. None of the games were even close.
Then a road trip to Alabama. The Gators always struggle there. Not this time. The Gators won Friday and Saturday to take two of three.
And then it was Georgia. A trap series if there ever was one. The Dogs have been bad this year. Beating the arch rival Gators would make their year. And they came out and played tough. But the Gators hung in with two walk off wins on Friday and Saturday and then a blowout on Sunday for the sweep.
Which set the stage for the South Carolina showdown. The Gators beat Carolina's Blake Cooper on Thursday, who was 10-0 on the season, 3-2. Then the Gators won on Friday 5-2 scoring four runs with two outs. Chapman came on in the eighth for a two inning save and the celebration was on!
The Gators would appear to be a lock for one of the Eight National Seeds in the NCAA Tournament. They will take the memory of last year's upset at the hands of Southern Miss in the Super Regionals with them. They will also be taking one heck of a team with them too.