Image credit: Florida righthander Brady Singer (Photo by Cliff Welch)
Under coach Kevin O’Sullivan, Florida has produced a bevy of premium pitchers. Since 2012, six Gators pitchers have been taken in the top 50 picks of the draft. And with that many elite pitchers coming through a Southeastern Conference program, big-time pitching matchups are inevitable.
Thursday brought one such matchup to McKethan Stadium in Gainesville. With top-ranked Florida hosting Auburn, Brady Singer and Casey Mize, both Preseason All-Americans and likely top-10 picks in the upcoming MLB draft, faced off on the mound. It was a highly anticipated pitchers’ duel that drew more than 60 scouts and lived up to the pregame hype. Singer outdueled Mize and the Gators beat the Tigers, 3-1, to open a key SEC series.
O’Sullivan has seen many must-see pitchers’ duels over the years. But he couldn’t remember any during his Florida tenure that played out as well as Thursday’s. He had to reach back to his days as an assistant coach at Clemson, when Clemson lefthander Tyler Lumsden matched up with Old Dominion’s Justin Verlander. That matchup resulted in a 2-0 Clemson victory as Lumsden, who went on to be the 34th overall pick in the 2004 draft, outdueled Verlander, the second pick in 2004.
But even that game, which took place a year before the aces were drafted and happened in a very different era of college baseball, wasn’t as electric as Thursday’s.
“We’ve had a lot of matchups over the years with one of our guys going against another high draft from another team, but it’s really hard to remember something like this,” O’Sullivan said. “This was a little bit different. It had a different feel to it.”
Mize has established himself as the favorite to be selected first overall by Detroit. Singer, who came into the season ranked as the No. 1 player in the draft class, is expected to be selected somewhere in the top-10 picks. Both made compelling cases Thursday in front of many high-ranking decision makers.
Singer held Auburn to one run on four hits and two walks. He struck out eight batters and was in control of the game throughout. In his final three innings of work, he struck out four batters and didn’t allow any runner to advance beyond first base.
Singer’s fastball sat 92-94 mph and regularly touched 95 mph early in the game. He landed his slider for strikes and generated swings and misses with the pitch, and effectively mixed in his changeup.
Singer improved to 9-1, 2.63 with 81 strikeouts and 17 walks in 72 innings. He admitted to thinking a bit about the matchup in the weeks leading up to the game and said it was “awesome” to be a part of it.
“I think we both came out with an edge, we both knew it was a big game,” Singer said. “I don’t think either one of us let it get to us, we came out doing our job.”
Singer has plenty of experience pitching in big games after last season helping Florida win the national championship. He’s pitched 14 times in the last two years in the NCAA Tournament, against top-10 opponents, against rival Miami and now on the national stage of Thursday night. In those games, he is 9-3, 3.61 with 111 strikeouts and 15 walks in 67.1 innings.
Singer has always had excellent stuff—he was a second-round pick in 2015 for a reason—and he has repeatedly risen to the occasion throughout his career. What is separating him now, O’Sullivan believes, is his consistency.
“It’s not easy being a high draft as a junior, there’s so many expectations,” O’Sullivan said. “To be able to go out there every Friday night—and in this case Thursday night—and be as consistent as he’s been, I think speaks volumes of his maturity and where he’s at mentally. He’s not getting caught up in the draft, he’s pitching for his team, he’s staying within himself, he’s not trying to do too much and you’re seeing the result of that.”
Mize also turned in a strong outing Thursday. He allowed three runs on four hits and a walk and struck out 10 batters. Florida jumped on him for two runs in the first inning thanks to a two-run home run by Jonathan India, who is also likely to be drafted in the top half of the first round. India scored another run in the fourth when the Gators were again able to string a couple hits together.
Otherwise, Mize held Florida’s powerful offense in check. In his final three innings of work, like Singer, he struck out four batters and didn’t allow a runner to advance past first base.
Auburn coach Butch Thompson said Mize left a couple pitches up in the zone in the first inning, which cost him.
“It took him an inning to get his stuff set,” Thompson said. “Casey finished strong. He got through seven innings for us and gave us a chance.”
Mize is 8-2, 2.40 with 104 strikeouts and seven walks in 75 innings. On Thursday, he threw his fastball 93-95 mph and touched 97 mph. But on Thursday he was just as likely to throw his 89-91 mph cutter as his fastball, which was in keeping with recent outings. He also mixes in a devastating split-change, which may be the best pitch in the country, and a slider.
Mize added the cutter just a week before the season began and it has quickly gone from a show-me pitch to keep hitters honest to a staple in his arsenal. Thompson said he was surprised when Mize added the pitch. Now, he can’t imagine his ace without his newest toy.
“When you think about top one-percenters, they’re always trying to constantly refine,” Thompson said. “As the season went on and I’ve seen how he’s needed it and how well it’s played for him and it’s really matched and caught up to his repertoire with the fastball and the changeup and the slider—man, it’s a pretty gifted guy that can just add a pitch before the season and get the use out of it that he’s gotten.”
O’Sullivan was impressed by Mize’s cutter.
“That little cutter he throws at 88-91 is a really good pitch and he can throw it to both righties and lefties,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m not quite sure if it was by design, but he front-doored that thing a couple times to righthanders. I remember he threw one to J.J. (Schwarz) front door on the inner half that you just don’t see at this level very often.”
In the end, it was Florida that came out on top. The Gators (35-9, 15-4) have stormed through the SEC this season and hold a four-game advantage in the standings with 11 games to play. They will go for the series win Friday night with righthander Jackson Kowar, another Preseason All-American and likely early first-round pick, on the mound.
But, for one night, the rigors of the SEC race and the postseason implications seemed to fade away, outshined by two superstars duking it out on as big a stage as the regular season can offer.
“It was unbelievable to come out and compete with him,” Singer said. “It was a really good turnout.”