GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. – They have squared off against one another from opposite dugouts 15 times over the past four seasons, their most recent clash coming 22 days ago in the SEC Tournament championship game.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan won that one, watching as Alex Panteliodis and three relievers blanked Tim Corbin’s Vanderbilt Commodores for Florida’s first SEC Tournament title in 20 years.
O’Sullivan enjoyed the victory, certainly, but not as much as usual. That’s because Corbin, in his ninth season as Vanderbilt’s coach, is perhaps O’Sullivan’s best friend in baseball.
The two worked together from 1999-2002 as assistants on Jack Leggett’s staff at Clemson. Corbin left after the 2002 season to take over the Commodores, building the program into one of the SEC’s finest and leading them to the CWS for the first time in school history this season.
Meanwhile, O’Sullivan is in his fourth season at Florida, needing one more win – Florida is 51-17 – to set a single-season school record for victories in a season. He led the Gators this season to their first back-to-back trips to the CWS in school history and now will try to beat his best friend on Monday night on the game’s biggest stage.
The Gators and Commodores face each other tonight at 7 ET (ESPN2) here at TD Ameritrade Park in the winner’s bracket. Despite owning a 10-5 edge in head-to-head meetings with Corbin, O’Sullivan knows the Gators face a difficult challenge.
“I don’t enjoy playing Tim,’’ O’Sullivan said. “Because I know, No. 1, his team is very prepared and it’s not going to be easy. But No. 2, you hate to see anybody lose. That’s where your heart gets involved.’’
“Tim and I are very, very close, just like we are with Jack.’’
As assistants under Leggett at Clemson, O’Sullivan and Corbin made two trips together to Omaha in 2000 and 2002. The Tigers came up short each time, but both learned a lot from the experience.
“In 2002, we thought we had a great chance to win it,’’ Corbin said. “We got deep into the tournament and got beat by South Carolina twice. We just have great memories.’’
The two stay in contact regularly, talking on the phone every few days during the season and offseason. O’Sullivan also talks with Leggett regularly. He spent nine seasons at Clemson prior to taking over the Gators, and while he has to face Corbin regularly as SEC East rivals, O’Sullivan has stayed away from trying to schedule Clemson for sentimental reasons.
“I don’t really have a desire to play him,’’ O’Sullivan said.
This will be the fifth meeting between the Gators and Commodores this season, with Florida owning a 3-1 edge. Tonight’s winner will be in the driver’s seat in the winner’s bracket, so a lot is at stake in a game featuring a dynamic pitching matchup – Florida’s Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.45 ERA) vs. Vanderbilt’s Grayson Garvin (13-1, 2.36).
“We know each other about as well as you can,’’ Corbin said. “There are really no secrets.’’
“I'm sure Tim's going to feel the same way I do; once the umpire says "plays ball," it's back to business,’’ O’Sullivan added. “I care about him deeply. [I’m] just proud that we get an opportunity to play each other on this stage.’’
SMITH HAS COME BACK SWINGING
There was a point during the regular season when senior outfielder Bryson Smith wasn’t sure he would ever play another game for the Gators.
Smith was suspended and missed 19 games due to his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence. He had to complete various off-the-field requirements and convince O’Sullivan he was deserving of a second chance.
Smith has certainly proven it on the field, reaching base five times in Florida’s 8-4 win over Texas on Saturday. Smith went had two hits, scored two runs, walked twice, got hit by a pitch and drove in Florida’s first run with an RBI single in the third inning off Longhorns starter Taylor Jungmann.
Oh, he also made a great running catch in deep center field in the fifth inning to rob Texas second baseman Jordan Etier of extra bases.
No Gator is having a better postseason than Smith, who has a team-high .556 average (15-for-27) in NCAA Tournament games and a career-high 11-game hitting streak in which he is 24-for-45 (.533) with 12 runs, eight RBI and six doubles.
“I’ve been through a low point, I’m not going to lie,’’ Smith said. “This is my senior year. I don’t want to go out a loser. I definitely want to get a shot at the title. I just stayed true to my faith and believed in God and everything he has blessed me with.
“I’ve been blessed to have a second chance and I’m giving it everything I got.’’
O’Sullivan and Smith have had several heart-to-heart talks the past few months. The Gators skipper is pleased with the way Smith, 22, has responded on the field once he returned to the club.
“We recruited him as an infielder. I feel kind of stupid we didn't play him in the outfield last year,’’ O’Sullivan said. “That was a key catch of the ballgame. To have him back means an awful lot to our lineup. He gives us some stability there at the top.’’
JOHNSON’S RETURN A HIT
The last time we saw Gators sophomore Brian Johnson play in a game prior to Saturday, he was taken off the field on a stretcher after getting hit in the head.
Johnson suffered a concussion and missed Florida’s wins in the regional and super regional to advance to Omaha.
The snapshot we’ll remember from Johnson’s return on Saturday is his two-run double – a hit the NCAA umpire coordinator later said should have been a three-run homer – in the seventh inning against Texas.
Johnson’s hit turned a one-run game into a 7-4 Florida lead.
“Sully talked to me before the at-bat,’’ Johnson said. “He said it's going to be a big at-bat for the game. So I just went up there really looking for one pitch I could drive. And I ended up getting that pitch.’’
Johnson went 1-for-4 with a two RBI in his first game since May 28 in the SEC Tournament. His double off Texas reliever Nathan Thornhill hit a railing beyond the 8-foot-high wall in right-center field and bounced back into play, causing confusion among the umpires.
Johnson was glad to be able to contribute in his return to the field.
“I was really excited to get back out there after three weeks not being able to play,’’ he said. “I thought after my first at-bat went by, it didn't feel like it happened.’’
MARONDE’S POSSIBLE UNEXPECTED ADVENTURE
Gators reliever Nick Maronde has had an eventful couple of weeks.
He was Florida’s first player selected in the MLB first-year player draft on June 7 when the Angels selected him in the third round. And on Saturday Maronde pitched two perfect innings – striking out three of the six Texas batters he faced – to pick up his third save.
Afterward, Maronde did a video interview with Baseball America about a topic far away – potentially playing for New Zealand in the next World Baseball Classic.
How’s that possible for a guy from Lexington, Ky., you might ask?
According to a newspaper report from New Zealand, Maronde and his family lived in New Zealand for two years, making him eligible to represent the country.
According to the report, other potential players to represent New Zealand include Toronto reliever Scott Richmond, Red Sox prospect Moko Moanaroa, and Blue Jays third baseman Scott Campbell.
It’s uncertain whether Maronde will play, but what’s not in question is New Zealand excited about being involved in the tournament for the first time.
“This is the best thing to happen in the history of diamond sports in New Zealand,’’ chief executive of Baseball New Zealand Ryan Flynn told the Waikato Times. “This could be our moment.’’
Many pundits had Florida and Vanderbilt as the two most complete teams entering the CWS. Here is what one opposing coach said of the Gators in the Omaha World-Herald: “They were the best offensive team we faced. They scare you from top to bottom. They have power, they have speed, and they’re tough and strong and really physical.’’ … The probable pitching matchup tonight is Gators right-hander Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.45 ERA) vs. Vanderbilt left-hander Grayson Garvin (13-1, 2.36 ERA). Whitson was named a Freshman All-American and Garvin the SEC Pitcher of the Year … Based on walking around Omaha on Sunday, there are plenty of Gator fans who made the trip to Omaha to see if Florida can win the first national championship in school history … If you do make it out to Omaha, there is a lottery drawing each morning of a CWS game for approximately 1,400 to 1,600 reserved tickets and 5,500 general admission tickets.