At about 9 p.m. on Monday night, everything that the Gators had worked for all season was still there for the taking, such as making it to Omaha and even winning the College World Series. They led Oklahoma 3-1 going to the eighth inning, and all of the momentum seemed to be on their side.
About an hour later, it was all over. The Gators lost to Oklahoma 5-4 in the Gainesville Regional Championship Game. For some players, the sudden realization that their college careers were over swept over them. Others had to unexpectedly start figuring out what they’re going to do this summer to prepare for fall practice in October.
Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan suddenly had to start figuring out what he needs to change to get his program out of the regional round for the first time since 2018. That process started on Tuesday when he parted ways with longtime assistant coach Craig Bell.
The cruelness that every season ends with for all but one team is what makes us both love this sport and lose our minds over it.
Here are 10 parting thoughts on the 2022 Gators baseball team and the way that their season ended:
1. It’s easy to say this in hindsight, but O’Sullivan shouldn’t have given the ball to Ryan Slater in the seventh inning and then given him as long of a leash as he did.
Yes, Slater was their most trusted reliever at the end of games, and he had certainly earned that role. However, he had already thrown 77 pitches throughout the regional. Asking him to go 2 1/3 innings against one of the hottest offenses in the country felt like a little too much.
Plus, Slater has been snake-bitten by home runs all year, and it felt like a homer was the only way that Oklahoma was going to get back in the game, which is exactly what happened, of course.
I would’ve gone with Fisher Jameson out of the weather delay. He had barely thrown in the regional, and he’s the type of pitcher that can get on a roll and pile up the outs in a hurry. He had done a good job of keeping the ball down all year, which would’ve made a big game-tying home run less likely with him on the mound.
In my scenario, Jameson would’ve been given the opportunity to close out the game, and, if he faltered, you could always turn to Slater in a much more manageable situation in the ninth.
2. Still, while I may disagree with this particular decision by O’Sullivan, I think that this season was one of his best coaching jobs.
This team was dead in the water in late April. They were 6-12 in the SEC with no ace and a slumping offense. He then pushed all of the correct buttons over the last month-plus. Moving Wyatt Langford to the leadoff spot and pulling the redshirt off of Jac Caglianone were strokes of genius that made this offense lethal.
Inserting Ty Evans into the lineup earned them at least one of the wins at Mississippi State and maybe even two of them.
Pitching-wise, he took a gamble by inserting Nick Pogue into the weekend rotation despite his midweek appearances leaving a lot to be desired. That move worked.
O’Sullivan took Blake Purnell out of the closer role and moved Slater back into that spot, which paid off in every game except for the last one.
And then what can I even say about Carsten Finnvold? It took a lot of guts to put him into the game in that position, and it couldn’t have been a more special night.
O’Sullivan’s managing was a big reason why this team even hosted a regional to begin with.
3. This team was extremely fun to watch, even more so than some of the College World Series teams.
If you’re lucky, you might get to witness one magical moment every baseball season, whether it be a big walk-off win, an unexpected pitching performance or a huge comeback win.
The last couple of months were nothing but special moment after special moment. You had Langford tying Matt LaPorta’s home run record and Jud Fabian joining him as the only teammates with 20-plus homers in a season in school history.
There was Brandon Neely’s no-hitter against Tennessee that got carried into the seventh inning.
There was Sterlin Thompson’s walk-off homer against Florida State that might still be in orbit somewhere.
There was Deric Fabian’s game-winning home run at Vanderbilt and BT Riopelle’s three-homer game up there as well.
There was the extra-innings walk-off win against South Carolina that came down to a dropped ball.
There were the unexpected pitching performances by Nick Ficarrotta and Timmy Manning that got them to the SEC Championship Game.
And, of course, there was Finnvold’s nine-inning relief outing against Oklahoma.
A new hero emerged in pretty much every game, which made this team so fun to watch. Even up until Riopelle struck out on Monday night to end the season, you always felt like something unforgettable was going to happen on the next pitch.
This team was starting to get that “team of destiny” type of feel to it. It’s unfortunate that the magic ended prematurely.
4. I could sense a mindset shift over the final month of the season or so.
When things were going poorly over the first six weeks of the SEC season, you could almost feel that “Here we go again” mindset creeping into the players’ heads when something like a leadoff walk or an error happened in the latter innings. When things started to go against them, they let things spiral out of control until they lost a game that was very winnable.
That all changed over the last month. They withstood a couple of late rallies by Mississippi State to sweep that series on the road. They found a way to beat Florida State despite digging themselves into an early hole. They fought back after Brandon Sproat gave up the tying run in the ninth inning to beat the Gamecocks in the SEC Tournament.
They bounced back after blowing a 4-0 lead over Alabama to win the game. They made the winning plays down the stretch to defeat Central Michigan and Oklahoma in the regional.
The competitive fire that has helped define O’Sullivan-coached teams returned over the final six weeks.
5. The freshmen class lived up to the hype.
Depending on which website you trust the most, the Gators’ 2021 class was either the No. 1 or No. 2 class in the nation.
It looks like the experts were right on the money. Neely looks like a really good frontline starter to build around for the next couple of years. Jameson, Finnvold and Anthony Ursitti are very exciting bullpen options for next year. Caglianone will perhaps be the best all-around player on the team next year once he starts pitching again.
Evans looks like the next great power-hitting corner outfielder at UF, and Deric Fabian showed some flashes of promise.
Then there are the lightning-fast Corey Robinson and Michael Robertson. Robinson couldn’t get on the field because of how well the starting outfield played, and Robertson took a redshirt after injuring his hamstring.
Rene Lastres showcased his massive power bat and cannon for a right arm in limited action. If he recovers quickly from Tommy John surgery, he could start at catcher at some point next year.
Pierce Coppola was one of the best pitchers on the team throughout the preseason. If he recovers from his back injury, he’ll possibly rejoin the weekend rotation in 2023.
And those are just the freshmen that stood out this year. If some of the other pitchers such as Philip Abner and Karl Hartman can make a big jump over the offseason, this class has the potential to be one of the top classes that O’Sullivan has ever signed.
6. Langford turned in one of the best seasons in school history.
For 15 years, LaPorta was the gold standard when it came to Gators’ sluggers.
Not anymore. Langford tied his home run record in an era where the bats aren’t as juiced as they used to be and when college pitchers have better stuff than ever before. He also hit a robust .355 and didn’t commit an error at a new position.
What Langford did this year has to at least be in the discussion for best offensive season in UF history, even if it apparently wasn’t good enough to garner First Team All-SEC honors or earn a spot on the Golden Spikes Award semifinalists list.
7. Caglianone is going to be special.
He only took about 10 live at bats during practice before being thrust into the lineup against Tennessee.
He quickly became a mainstay in the middle of the order, and he finished seventh on the team with seven home runs despite starting just 27 games. His .288 batting average would’ve ranked fourth on the team if he had gotten enough at bats to be eligible.
He was one of their most clutch hitters as well. He drove in 27 runs and notched 30 hits. That’s pretty efficient.
And he was considered a better pitcher than a hitter coming out of high school.
It’ll be interesting to see how they use him next year. Will they use him as the designated hitter or first baseman on Fridays and Saturdays and then start him on the mound on Sundays? Will they start him at first base and then slide him onto the mound as a late-inning reliever the way that they did with Austin Maddox a decade ago?
O’Sullivan has plenty of options with Caglianone,
8. Injuries decimated this pitching staff.
If Hunter Barco doesn’t get injured, the Gators are probably getting ready to play in a Super Regional right now. If Barco and Coppola would’ve both not gotten injured, they’d probably be getting ready to host that Super Regional as a top-8 seed.
Not only are Barco and Coppola really good pitchers, but their absences created a trickle-down effect to the bullpen. If everybody was healthy, they would’ve had Neely and Pogue coming out of the bullpen late in games instead of starting, and you probably would’ve seen less out of the guys that struggled.
Unfortunately, injuries are becoming an increasingly large problem for pitchers at all levels of baseball, so this might be something that the Gators will have to overcome again next year.
9. The lineup wasn’t as deep as I thought it was going to be.
They got virtually nothing out of the first base position for most of the year. Kendrick Calilao hit .209 after hitting in the .270s in two of his first three years, and Kris Armstrong hit a career-low .230.
When they moved Riopelle to first, they inserted a .238 catcher into the lineup in Mac Guscette. Colby Halter and Deric Fabian both had those monthlong stretches where it felt like they may never get a hit again.
To counteract that lack of lineup depth, O’Sullivan chose to bunch his best hitters together at the top of the order and play for the occasional big inning. That strategy helped them win a bunch of games, but it also left them with little margin for error. If Langford, Thompson and Riopelle all had off days at once, they usually didn’t win.
It also led to them being a middling offense despite finishing with the second-most homers in a season in school history. The Gators hit 11 home runs in their five regional games. All 11 were solo shots. That’s a pretty good summary of what this offense was like.
10. Next year’s team could be another fun one to watch.
On paper, the 2023 squad should more closely resemble the typical O’Sullivan-coached team than the ones we’ve seen over the last three full seasons.
Pitching should be a major strength. Assuming that he doesn’t sign professionally, Pogue should team with Neely to form as good of a 1-2 punch as there is in the SEC. Coppola, Caglianone, Jameson and maybe a freshman or two should have a pretty intense competition for the third spot in the rotation.
Pretty much every key bullpen arm will return, including Slater, Purnell, Ficarrotta, Abner, Finnvold, Ursitti and Tyler Nesbitt. That’s a really good starting point. If they all keep improving at the rate that they did throughout the 2022 season, this will look like a 2010-18 type of pitching staff.
The offense will be the biggest concern. Langford will be back, but they’re going to potentially lose Jud Fabian, Josh Rivera, Thompson, Calilao, Armstrong and Riopelle.
They don’t exactly have a ton of proven players that have been waiting in the wings for their time to shine, so they’re going to have to either get massive jumps from their returning players or make good use of the transfer portal to field a good offense next year.
If they’re able to do so, their four-year Omaha drought might end.
Wonder if any of the upper classmen will return. There are also always unexpected transfers out…players who started for 1-3 years who transfer elsewhere.
You are dead on with not using Slater. Sully was doing his level best in trying to excuse his reasoning for using Slater and for not pulling him when a double, home run, and walk didn’t bring him to the mound. He allowed OK to get back into the game when he had other options. He left Slater out to hang and crippled UF’s opportunity to win and advance. I agree, Sully did a lot of good things towards the end of the season but his pride and arrogance would not allow him to take ownership of his inexcusable decision. Not many Gator fans buy his explanation.