GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Play ball.
Those two words take on new meaning for the Gators starting Friday night. The time has come. Showtime.
The NCAA Tournament is finally here. The Gators have waited on this moment since they stood around in dejection and watched South Carolina celebrate a second consecutive national title on a warm night last June in Omaha.
They were so close to claiming the program's first national championship but came up empty against the Gamecocks.
The long road back to TD Ameritrade Park began in February when the regular season started. But for these Gators, a team ranked No. 1 in every major poll for much of the season, the regular season appeared at times nothing more than an appetizer.
Every pitch, every at-bat, every ground ball that was bobbled faced a fraction more scrutiny than in past years.
To get here, they had to play the season of course, and they did, winning a school-record 18 consecutive games during one stretch. They also tripped over a base here and there.
A 19-16 finish followed a 23-2 start. The last time Florida swept a series was in mid-March at Vanderbilt – nine SEC series ago.
Still, the Gators earned respect from the NCAA Selection Committee for their response to those great expectations. They didn't win the SEC regular-season title. They didn't win the SEC Tournament.
That meant little to the selection committee. The Gators open June Lunacy – I know, doesn't quite have the ring of March Madness – as the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.
“It’s an honor when you see it in the paper or Internet or whatever, and then you just try to forget it,’’ junior pitcher Hudson Randall said. “That No. 1 doesn’t really mean anything anymore.”
Randall is right, but there are definitely some residual benefits.
As long as they keep winning, the Gators won't have to leave the comforts of McKethan Stadium until boarding a flight for Omaha. That quest starts Friday night when the Gators face Bethune-Cookman in the Gainesville Regional.
They held their final practice Thursday, focused on finishing off a journey that really started the moment South Carolina's Jackie Bradley Jr. squeezed Ben McMahan's fly ball for the final out at last year's College World Series.
“We’ve been through this situation before,'' said skipper Kevin O'Sullivan, seeking a third trip to Omaha in his five seasons. "Hopefully our past experience will help us this weekend. It’s a great field. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re certainly looking forward to the challenge.”
The Gators are a favorite to win it all for the same reasons they were at the start of the season.
"Pitching and defense. I feel it always has been,'' shortstop Nolan Fontana said when asked what he thought the strength of this team is. "Our coaching staff always focuses on that.”
The Gators can hit, too, with Fontana, Mike Zunino and Preston Tucker in the lineup.
But what puts fear in Florida's opponents is the way O'Sullivan can roll out a starting rotation that features Randall, Brian Johnson, Jonathon Crawford and Karsten Whitson. And then make calls to the bullpen for arms like Daniel Gibson, Greg Larson, Steven Rodriguez and Austin Maddox.
There's not another coach in the country that has that deep an arsenal.
"I feel really good about our team,'' O'Sullivan said. "I feel we're ready to play."
The Gators survived the grind of the regular season intact. Other than for the loss of center fielder Tyler Thompson – he suffered a season-ending knee injury in March – they are healthy and intact.
The postseason always offers twists and turns that no one sees coming. Remember light-hitting third baseman Cody Dent's contributions last year?
To reach their ultimate goal, the Gators will need more Dents. Maybe freshman second baseman Casey Turgeon will shine. Maybe Tucker, known more for his bat than glove, will make a leaping catch to rob someone of a home run.
"It's a great time of year,'' Fontana said. "It's really, really fun."
O'Sullivan knows his role.
"It’s their team. At this point players have to play,'' he said. "You like to think as a coach that you have a lot to do with the outcomes of the games, but at this point in the season you don’t. The players have to go play.
"It’s pretty much as simple as that.”
A little after 7 on Friday night, Crawford will make his postseason debut in a start against Bethune-Cookman. He'll toe the rubber, look in at Zunino for the sign, and fire away.
The Road to Omaha will officially begin. O'Sullivan will watch from his normal perch along the dugout rail.
He'll be looking for the one thing that makes or breaks a team in the postseason. The Gators had it last year. They had it earlier this season. Can they grab it again?
That is the most important question on the Road to Omaha.
"Momentum is the biggest thing in postseason,'' O'Sullivan said. "Once you get momentum you gotta hold onto it.”