OMAHA—As fireworks lit up the Omaha skyline above TD Ameritrade Park and blue and orange streamers soared over the infield, Florida fell into a raucous dogpile between the mound and first base.
Florida had just defeated Louisiana State, 6-1, Tuesday in Game 2 of the College World Series finals to complete a sweep and win the first national championship in program history. Righthander Alex Faedo was named Most Outstanding Player after two dominant starts last week carried the Gators to the finals.
The victory left coach Kevin O'Sullivan, who has led the Gators to Omaha six times in the last eight seasons, speechless even an hour after the final out.
"You never know how you're going to feel when you get the last out in the College World Series, and I'm still kind of numb," he said. "Just overwhelmed with emotions for our players."
Florida (52-19) relied on its elite rotation all spring and throughout the CWS. But because of how the schedule fell, the Gators were unable to start any of their trio of Faedo, Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar. Instead, Florida called on freshman righthander Tyler Dyson, typically its setup man, to make just his second career start against LSU lefthander Jared Poche', the winningest pitcher in program history.
Dyson outdueled Poche', holding the Tigers (52-20) to one run on three hits and two walks in six innings. He turned a lead over to closer Michael Byrne as he had done so many times this season.
"I didn't get much sleep last night, thinking about this game," Dyson said. "I just went out there and executed the pitch call."
LSU, however, didn't make anything easy for Florida. The Gators grabbed an early lead with one run in both of the first two innings, but were unable to expand it against Poche'. And the Tigers' potent offense threatened late in the game.
After scoring once in the seventh, LSU got runners on first and third with no outs to start the eighth. Byrne struck out Antoine Duplantis, the Tigers' three-hole hitter, before O'Sullivan called on Kowar, who was slated to start Wednesday if the series went to three games. Kowar got All-American Greg Deichmann to hit a grounder to first baseman J.J. Schwarz, who threw home to get Kramer Robertson, who had taken off from third base on contact.
"It was a heads-up play," O'Sullivan said. "Made a perfect throw. Quick feet. Probably saved the game, to be honest with you."
Florida scored four insurance runs in the bottom of the inning against electric LSU freshman righthander Zack Hess. Deacon Liput drove in two runs in the inning, and finished the night 2-for-5 with a run and three RBIs to celebrate his 21st birthday in style.
Kowar returned to the mound in the ninth and got the final three outs with little drama. He had last pitched Friday against Texas Christian. Though he was in line to start Wednesday, he went to O'Sullivan before Tuesday's game and told his coach that he had a few innings in him if he was needed. O'Sullivan said before that conversation, he had not thought about using Kowar, but he wanted to do anything he could to wrap up the series Tuesday to avoid LSU ace Alex Lange, who was in line to start Game 3.
"Sometimes you make these decisions and they don't work out and you look like a fool," O'Sullivan said. "And sometimes you make them and the players make you look like you're smart."
O'Sullivan has looked smart far more often than not in his 10 years at Florida. He has led the Gators to the CWS six times in the last eight years and turned the program into a powerhouse both for on-field production and player development.
But despite the parade of All-Americans and first-round draft picks that have come through Gainesville in the last decade, including stars such as Brian Johnson, Logan Shore and Mike Zunino, O'Sullivan had not been able to breakthrough to win the program's first title. That changed a year after Florida went 0-2 in Omaha with what might have been one of its most talented teams ever, a team that was the No. 1 national seed and had eight players drafted in the top 10 rounds.
All eight of those players signed, leaving several holes for the Gators to replace this year. They lacked the depth many of O'Sullivan's teams have had, with injuries throughout the spring testing their depth even further. Florida's offense never truly clicked, and it ended the season without a .300 hitter. As a team, the Gators hit .259/.355/.378.
Through it all, however, Florida found a way to win. It won 19 one-run games, the most in the nation, thanks in large part to its defense and Byrne, who set a program record with 19 saves. Most importantly, Florida was always able to rely on its rotation.
Faedo went 9-2, 2.26, earned All-America honors and was drafted 18th overall. Singer, a sophomore who is an early favorite to be the first overall pick in next year's draft, went 9-5, 3.21, while Kowar, his classmate, went 12-1, 4.08.
"What happens when we have pitching like we do, there's never a really long stretch of losses," O'Sullivan said. "You'll lose a game or two, but then you get back on the winning side of things because your pitching is what it is."
As good as they had been during the regular season, Faedo and Singer found another level during the postseason. The righthanders combined to go 4-0, 1.27 with 43 strikeouts and nine walks in 28.1 innings in the CWS.
Singer won Game 1 of the finals, striking out 12 batters in seven innings Monday. Faedo was so good in the first half of the CWS that he didn't need to appear in the finals to win the MOP. He struck out 22 batters in 14.1 scoreless innings over two starts against TCU last week, and won the game that clinched Florida's spot in the finals.
Faedo said being named MOP made Florida's victory even better.
"It's amazing," he said. "I can't even describe it. I never thought I would get to that point."
The same cannot be said for the Gators. For years, particularly in recent seasons once they got rolling under O'Sullivan, many have expected them to break through for a national championship.
To have now finally won it all says a lot about O’Sullivan, athletic director Scott Stricklin said.
"We've had 10 sports win team national titles and as good as baseball's been, it has not done that before now," he said. "To be able to put that banner up at the baseball facility—'National Champions'—it's really special."
The Gators will be able to hang that banner at McKethan Stadium when they get back to Gainesville, fulfilling the program's ultimate promise.
"I'm just really happy for these guys because they deserve it and they're the ones who go out there and play," O'Sullivan said. "We'll let it sink in and we'll enjoy this for a little bit."