Florida falls short of elite status

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OMAHA—The fact that Florida was not at its best in the College World Series was not obvious until the ninth inning of its first game, a 7-3 loss to South Carolina.

The Gators led 2-0 early before the Gamecocks came back to take a 5-3 lead into the ninth, which is when Florida really stopped playing like the nation's No. 1-seeded team. Two relievers issued two walks and two wild pitches while the defense made two errors. South Carolina scored two more runs and sent the preseason No. 1 to the brink of elimination.

Facing elimination, Florida figured to come out stronger against Kent State, one of the 2012 Series' two Cinderella stories. Instead, the clock struck 12 on the Gators as soon as the game began. In the first, Florida tried to hit-and-run with slugger Preston Tucker at first and College Player of the Year Mike Zunino at the plate; Zunino swung and missed, and Tucker was thrown out stealing.

The second batter of the bottom of the first was the real sign that this was not Florida's year. Golden Flashes shortstop Jimmy Rider grounded to sure-handed Gators counterpart Nolan Fontana, who bobbled the routine if hard-hit grounder. Rushed, Fontana made just the 23rd error of his career and seventh of the season.

"I knew I hit it hard. I was wondering where the throw was . . . so I snuck a look at the board and saw his throw was high," Rider said. "I thought, 'That's a rarity,' and the fact that we got a run out of it, it was a big lift for us."

Kent State got three more runs the next inning, also unearned. Over three innings—the ninth in against South Carolina and the first two against Kent State—the Gators played embarrassing baseball, making four errors and giving up six unearned runs. They eventually found themselves in a 5-4 loss to Kent State, fighting back from a four-run deficit, but it proved to be too late.

Too late for a junior class that went to three straight Series but went just 3-6 in the CWS, bookending 0-2 finishes with a loss to the Gamecocks in the 2011 Finals. Too late for seniors such as sidearming reliever Greg Larson (122 career appearances) and Tucker (57 career homers, 258 RBIs).

And too late for Zunino, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, one of nine Gators picked, eight of them in the first 10 rounds.

"I've been able to make it out here three times and all three times I've been just as disappointed," Zunino said. "It's one of those you put in so much hard work and get so close to the guys. It's one of those things where you don't want it to end.

"It's going to take a while to hit me . . . it's disappointing at the time. I'm sure it will hit harder later."

Join The Club

The Gators certainly aren't the first national championship favorite to struggle, or the first team to get to Omaha three times in three years without winning. But ever since this group of juniors—led by Fontana, Zunino, two-way talents Brian Johnson and Austin Maddox, and righthander Hudson Randall—was ranked as the nation's top recruiting class in the fall of 2009, expectations have been extremely high for them.

In many ways, they lived up to those expectations. Zunino was Southeastern Conference player of the year in 2011 and national Player of the Year this season. Fontana was the nation's steadiest shortstop and an on-base machine. Johnson hit for power and was a rotation stalwart, getting picked 31st overall by the Red Sox in this year's draft. And Maddox evolved from a slugging corner infielder with the old bats to a reliable closer and third-round pick. In all, nine Gators were drafted, eight in the first 10 rounds.

Despite that talent, Florida did not win a national title, and for some, that stamps them as a failure. In many ways, 2012 was less successful than 2011, when the Gators won a school-record 52 games, tied with Vanderbilt atop the SEC East Division and won the SEC tournament for the first time since 1991.

Zunino and his peers had a chance to stamp themselves as one of college baseball's great junior classes if it had ended South Carolina's mini-dynasty and finished its progression from hyped class to champions. Instead, their legacy resembles those of similarly talented clubs that didn't win titles, such as North Carolina's 2006-2009 run—which already has produced eight big league alumni—and Stanford's 1999-2003 clubs, which were loaded with future big leaguers, from Justin Wayne and Ryan Garko to Sam Fuld, Carlos Quentin, Jed Lowrie and John Mayberry Jr.

The Tar Heels' nemesis was Oregon State, with back-to-back Finals losses. The Cardinal was an equal-opportunity bridesmaid, as it lost in back-to-back championship games to Louisiana State and Miami, then lost in the first CWS Finals, to Rice in 2003.

Perhaps the draft was Florida's nemesis; it's hard to have a personal, life-long dream pulling players in one direction while team goals often pull them in another. But more likely, the Gators just weren't as good as South Carolina all these years. Instead of blaming the draft or the Gators for some kind of choke job, we should credit the Gamecocks for making something so difficult—winning a national championship—look so easy.

Because these Gators reminded us of just how hard winning can be in Omaha.