Florida Coach On Mace And Leftwich Returning, Gators’ New Ballpark

Image credit: Kevin O'Sullivan (Photo by Cliff Welch/Getty Images)

No team in college baseball impressed more during the abbreviated 2020 season than Florida.

It began the season 16-0, collecting a road sweep of rival Miami along the way, and only took a loss in the last game of the season, a 2-0 defeat at the hands of another rival, Florida State. It was ranked No. 1 in the country and had established itself as a clear contender to win the national title.

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Impact freshmen like catcher Nathan Hickey, shortstop Josh Rivera and lefthander Hunter Barco had a lot to do with that, but steps forward from a number of returning players also played a big role.

Outfielders Jacob Young and Jud Fabian were off to fast starts, two-way player Jordan Butler was having a nice season at the plate, third baseman Kirby McMullen was breaking out and the one-two rotation punch of righthanders Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich put the Gators in position to win every weekend series.

“We just had a collection of older guys that had made a significant jump in their performance from year one to year two,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We had some older guys make a jump from their sophomore to junior year, and then we had some really good, talented freshmen come in to really complement the roster.”

As the 2020 season came to an abrupt end, Florida, with a young team, looked like it would be a dangerous team again in 2021, albeit one that would likely be replacing Mace and Leftwich in the rotation.

But then Major League Baseball clipped the draft down to five rounds, the righthanders held firm on their signability numbers, went undrafted and just like that, Florida further consolidated its position as the No. 1 team in the country and the favorite for the national championship in 2021.

“It was unexpected,” O’Sullivan said of getting his top two pitchers back. “I think if the season would have played out, maybe the draft would have been a little bit different, but certainly, them not signing professionally has very little to do with their ability. It had all to do with their signability.”

The lineup also gives the Gators plenty of reasons for optimism next season, what with the return of all of the regulars from 2020.

That includes Fabian, whose jump in 2020 was particularly noticeable. The outfielder graduated high school early to arrive at UF for the 2019 season, and he took his lumps initially, hitting .232 for the season.

In 2020, through four weeks, he was hitting .294/.407/.603 with six doubles and five home runs while providing premium defensive ability in center field. Those early struggles had paid off.

“I think the biggest thing for him is probably the mental standpoint,” O’Sullivan said. “For him to come out of high school early and play just about every day and to go through the ups and downs of an SEC schedule and (for) him to be able to stand on his own two feet and survive that I think speaks volumes of his mental toughness. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing that (he has) grown the most with, learning from the failures.”

Like every team in the country, Florida is now in a holding pattern when it comes to finding out how it will be able to approach preparing for the 2021 season on campus.

So in the meantime, O’Sullivan’s players are playing where they can in summer ball to get in reps.

“Our players are out playing,” O’Sullivan said. “Our guys have stayed active, they’ve been very aggressive as far as wanting to go play. So, obviously, we’re excited to watch these guys, (but) unfortunately we’ve got to watch them online. I’m real excited with the effort they’ve put in and the aggressiveness they’ve had to go out and play.”

Next season, it won’t just be the team that’s worth discussing at UF. It will also be the new stadium, which will add to the SEC’s ever-growing suite of the finest facilities in college baseball.

“It’s a beautiful ballpark,” O’Sullivan said. “Not to take anything away from the other ballparks in the country or in the SEC, but in my opinion, (and) I’ve been to just about every ballpark, it might not be the biggest, but I would argue that it’s the nicest one in the country.”

With one of the best stadiums in the country and the team to match, all eyes will be on Gainesville in 2021. 

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