GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s path to the College World Series was filled with familiar foes.
The young and streaking Gators (49-15) beat four teams from the Sunshine State — Florida A&M, South Florida, Florida Atlantic and Florida State twice — to advance to Omaha, Nebraska.
So it’s somewhat fitting that they open play in the CWS against one more — Miami on Saturday night. It might as well be dubbed the unofficial state title game.
“I think it’s a pretty cool coincidence getting to play all the Florida teams and kind of prove you’re the best team in Florida,” Gators shortstop Richie Martin said.
As neat as it might be, being state champs is hardly Florida’s goal. The Gators want to win it all, and they’re widely considered one of the favorites heading into the eight-team tournament.
Florida has the nation’s hottest hitter, the country’s top defense and two starting pitchers playing their best down the stretch. So coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s fourth trip to Omaha in the last six years might be his best chance to bring home the school first baseball title.
“I feel good about this team,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re playing with emotion. We’re playing great defense. Pitching has been really good. Starting pitching has been good, relief pitching has been good. We’re getting some timely hits. ... I think the freshmen have infused a lot of energy into our program. They’ve contributed and kind of kept things simple. It has been neat to watch.”
The Gators have won nine consecutive games — more than any other CWS team — and 16 of their last 19.
Although they have gotten contributions from the entire lineup, a few guys have stood out during the streak.
Freshman JJ Schwarz is hitting .564 (22 of 39) in 10 postseason games, with four home runs, five doubles, 15 runs and 17 RBIs. The catcher/designated hitter has been even better in the NCAA tournament, hitting .600 (12 of 20) with four homers, four walks, 10 runs and 11 RBIs. His last homer was his 18th, breaking the school’s freshman record set by Austin Maddox in 2010.
“He’s really caught fire,” O’Sullivan said. “If you’re going to win a championship, a couple guys just got to really get hot. Obviously, he’s kind of getting to that point where he’s carrying us a little bit right now.”
Schwarz has gotten plenty of help.
Right fielder Jeremy Vasquez also is hitting .600 in NCAA play. Martin, third baseman Josh Tobias and outfielders Harrison Bader and Buddy Reed have delivered clutch hits and solid defense.
Sophomores Logan Shore and A.J. Puk have done their part on the mound.
Shore (9-6), a right-hander who will start Saturday night against the Hurricanes, has won all three of his postseason starts. He has allowed 12 hits and two runs in 18.1 innings. He also has 14 strikeouts and three walks in those outings.
Puk (9-3), who will start Florida’s second game, has been nearly as stout. The 6-foot-7 lefty has given up 11 hits and three earned runs in 18 postseason innings, winning two of his three starts. He has 54 strikeouts and a 1.83 ERA in 34.1 innings over his last six starts — all since his April arrest on a criminal trespassing charge that has since been dismissed.
Campus police said Puk and teammate Kirby Snead entered a construction site and attempted to climb a crane.
“Quite honestly, he’s embarrassed about what happened,” O’Sullivan said. “I think it was a time for him to reflect, and I do think it was a turning point.”
Teammates noticed a change.
“I think ever since the off-the-field issues, he’s been a whole new guy,” Schwarz said. “He’s a new guy in the locker room and the dugout. Ever since then, he got really focused and started staying late at practices and started throwing bullpens. He’s really focused now and he’s getting after it.”
With Shore and Puk on the mound, Florida’s starting lineup will feature four freshmen and three sophomores.
Other CWS teams have more experience. But the Gators believe it will help that they’re facing more familiar opponents. They won two of three against Miami this season and played Arkansas, LSU and Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference tournament last month.
“I don’t think they’re nervous,” O’Sullivan said. “I think they’re excited to get out there, ready for the challenge. The way we’ve been playing, if we continue just doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll be fine.”