Florida's Deacon Liput gestures to a member of the staff that was recognized during a celebration of the Gators 2017 NCAA College World Series National Championship held at McKethan Stadium on Wednesday

Attitude adjustment changed journey for UF baseball

By Pat Dooley Sun sports columnist
Saturday, July 01, 2017 9:01 PM

Often we make too big a deal about things like players-only meetings and superstitions (like the rally cup) and a coach changing what the team is served for pregame meals.

They make cute stories, but tangible results are not always the product of inspirational speeches or what T-shirt you wear to the game.

In baseball, for example, you are way more likely to win when your pitchers elevate their games — as Florida's pitchers did in Omaha — and your defense is tighter than an extra small shirt on a bodybuilder.

“When you keep the other team from scoring, you don't have to score seven runs to win,” Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said Wednesday as the Gators celebrated their first national title.

Today, that makes a lot of sense because we have just witnessed one of the great College World Series performances from a pitching staff in the history of ever. Other than the nine runs UF gave up in its lone loss in Omaha, Florida's ERA was 1.00 in five wins.

Still, to understand how this whole thing switched from dismal to delirious, you have to go back to early April when it looked dire.

Take yourself back to April 7, McKethan Stadium, the same place where a championship was celebrated Wednesday but looked as improbable back then as a hair band revival.

The Gators lost to Tennessee — and not a good Tennessee team — that day in extra innings. After the game, O'Sullivan blistered some wall paint in the Gator locker room. He wasn't happy, you know, like you got home to find your air conditioning and plumbing were both on the fritz at the same time.

He suspended three-fourths of his starting infield for the next game — Deacon Liput, Jonathan India and JJ Schwarz — as a form of attitude adjustment. The depleted lineup lost again the next day to Tennessee, but the message was received.

“There was a point where we were very low and we didn't think we had it in us,” India said.

They did. They just had to go find it.

“It was kind of eye opening for us,” said freshman Austin Langworthy. “We weren't playing as good as we could have been and we started playing like we should.”

It wasn't that Florida started tearing the cover off the ball, but the Gators started scoring one more than their opponents. After that Saturday loss to Tennessee, Florida went 32-8 and 16-3 in the conference.

As you may be aware, UF shared the conference title and won the national title, beating a really good LSU team four times in five games on the way to the hardware. Florida won because there was a change in attitude, players going from enjoying themselves to enjoying their teammates.

“There's something about when you're under a lot of criticism to be out there and keep battling when you know things aren't going your way,” said shortstop Dalton Guthrie. “We just found ways to win.”

Something else that happened that Tennessee weekend was that Florida decided to go with Michael Byrne as its closer. That worked out pretty well.

And now that it's over, the perception certainly is of a team that is a family. The truth is it had to learn how to become one.

With the draft looming out there on the distant horizon, these players had to grasp the concept of winning before it could win big.

“It's a gritty group,” said O'Sullivan.

But it had to learn how to get dirty.

And it had to learn how to shake off baseball while at the same time embracing the sport. Bad things are going to happen. Bethune-Cookman came to Gainesville looking like a slow-pitch softball team and stunned Florida. This was after South Florida gave the Gators all they could handle.

Then came the super regionals against a Wake Forest team that hit some balls that are still orbiting around Earth. But when it mattered, Florida found a way to overcome rain delays and found a way to win the game it had to win.

“We didn't have anything given to us that's for sure,” Langworthy said. “We didn't make it easy.”

Finally, it came down to a series against rival LSU, a team filled with veteran players who were battle-scarred by a boatload of SEC battles. And really, it came down to Nick Horvath's throw Monday night and two innings on Tuesday night.

Guthrie said Wednesday he was watching those two innings — the seventh and eighth — in the lobby of the Omaha Doubletree as the Gators celebrated with friends and families.

“I was getting nervous in the seventh and eighth thinking the outcome might change,” he said.

Naw, that business had already been taken care of. You know, back in April.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.




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