With the temptation of the MLB Draft and going pro always looming on the horizon, rarely do the rich get richer in College Baseball. However, after their dominating run as the #1 team in the 2020 season, the Florida Gators return most of their pieces from the past year, and gain one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. They also have the benefit of playing in a brand new stadium, adding in an element of motivation and freshness to an already promising team. With all of these contributing factors, it can only be assumed the Gators are looking to earn the Omaha run they missed out on last year.
A team is only as good as its pitching staff allows it to be, and the Gators have a bevy of riches in that department. This starts at the top, where Florida returns all three of their weekend starters from the 2020 season. Barring any change of plans, 1st team All-American Tommy Mace will take the bump on Friday nights. In four appearances last year, Mace went 3-0 with an incredible 1.67 ERA. 2nd and 3rd team All-Americans in Jack Leftwich and Hunter Barco also return to the hill for the Gators, creating arguably the most formidable rotation in the entire nation. In relief, expect coach Kevin O’Sullivan to rely on the arm of Ben Specht, a sophomore reliever returning after an impressive performance last year where he netted 2 wins and 3 saves, all while keeping a sub 1.00 ERA. The biggest struggle for the Gator staff this year will be the large lack of Lefty relievers, but this should only be a small bump with a staff decidedly good against both sides of the plate.
On the offensive side of the ball, Florida returns 8 of its 9 starters from their 2020 ball club, each of whom pose a large threat to opposing pitchers. Behind the dish, the Gators will rely on second year freshman Nathan Hickey, a lefty who led the team in slugging percentage and finished second in home runs with an impressive 4 bombs in the shortened season. The infield is led by Jordan Butler, a two way pitcher and first baseman. Butler was an RBI machine last year, averaging 1 in every game he started. And then finally we take a look at the outfield, which should be the benchmark for the Gators hitting this season. The duo of Jacob Young and Jud Fabian return, the two leaders in hitting for Florida last year. Alongside Young’s wild .450 batting average, Jud Fabian comes in as a 1st team All-American, and a strong candidate as the #1 prospect of the next MLB draft. There don’t seem to be any holes in this Florida lineup, and there will likely be no easy outs for any pitchers who face off against Southern Slam’s preseason #1 team.
After a season that ended with Florida as the #1 team in the country, they will start off in that same position in almost every preseason poll. With lofty expectations set out, what is the realistic ceiling and floor for the Gators this season? To answer that, one first has to look at the Gator’s schedule.
They open up with an in-state rivalry series, as they host #21 Miami at the brand new Florida Ballpark. Apart from that, the opening stretch is filled with more in state games against the likes of Florida A&M. The last game for the Gators before conference play is a match-up against #24 Florida State, who should provide a strong warm-up ahead of one of the tougher conference schedules in the nation.
The in conference highlights feature two huge home stands when the Gators take on Ole Miss and Georgia inside their new stadium. On the road, Florida will have arguably their toughest matchup of the season, when they travel to Fayetteville to take on the Razorbacks from Arkansas.
With all of that considered and the overview out of the way, we will close with the predictions for the 2021 Florida baseball team. One could imagine that anything other than Omaha and the CWS finals would be a disappointment for Kevin O’Sullivan’s ball club. With a lineup and pitching rotation that sees almost everyone returning to Gainesville, those expectations are completely within the realm of possibility. Gator fans will have a lot to be excited about this year as I project Jud Fabian to be the SEC’s player of the year, leading his ball club to an SEC and NCAA tournament victory. The Gators will look to win the National Championship this season, and I don’t expect anything less.