In two days, Florida will take the field in Omaha and try to bring home the Gators first baseball national championship. This is Florida’s seventh trip to the College World Series, and they enter as one of the favorites. But how much will history weigh on Gators fans’ minds over the next two weeks?
There have been a few great teams from McKethan in the past that have had chances in Omaha but none more special than the 1996 and 1998 squads. The ’96 team was a scrappy bunch that had a knack for rallying from deficits all season long. They are one of only three teams ever to win 50 or more games (this year’s team of course and the 1991 team are the others). Offensively, they were led by David Eckstein, Chuck Hazzard and freshman sensation Brad Wilkerson. On the mound, Wilkerson, soft tossing John Kaufman and flame-throwing closer Paul Rigdon were the keys. Overall, this will never be confused as the most talented Gator team but they found ways to win. They beat Florida State twice in Omaha only to lose twice to eventual national champion LSU, falling just short of the final.
Two years later, the team returned to Rosenblatt. I am very familiar with this squad, having served in the SID office in ’98 with responsibilities that included manning the press box and doing stats. Wilkerson was by now the greatest Gators baseball player ever. He was joined by a lineup full of mashers – Mark Ellis, Derek Nicholson, Greg Catalanotte, David Ross and Casey Smith. That ’98 team was an offensive menace. It had to be, because the pitching was awful. They could only rely on Wilkerson and closer Josh Fogg, who I still remember for his amazing regional performance where he threw over six relief innings to help Florida advance to the regional final. That final is one of the most memorable games ever at McKethan. The Gators won in walk-off fashion after Nicholson drove in the winning run with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th. It was the third time the Gators had rallied from behind in the game, including tying it in the 8th to force extras. The lack of pitching finally caught up with the Gators in Omaha as they gave up 26 runs in two losses and flamed out.
The disappointment of those two teams, coupled with the 2005 runner-up team and last year’s bunch that was swept out of Omaha has Gators fans cautious. But there is reason for optimism beyond the past failures. This Gators squad is the most balanced and deepest team in Florida history. The balance and depth have been on display all season but have really shined the past two weeks as the Gators have advanced without two key cogs in Brian Johnson and Austin Maddox. Mike Zunino and Preston Tucker are carrying the load on offense, while Karston Whitson, Hudson Randall and Alex Panteliodis have been huge on the bump.
The College World Series is a magical place where strange things can happen. The favorites don’t always advance. Two bad games and your season is over. But if Florida is going to win it all, this is the best chance they’ve ever had.