No. 1 Florida carries ultra-high expectations into opener

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan might have the easiest — some would say toughest — job in college baseball this season. “Sully” has what’s widely considered the deepest and most talented team in the country, a unanimous preseason No. 1 pick.

The Gators return seven of eight position players and 16 of 18 pitchers — including all three weekend starters — and add a top-10 recruiting class to the mix.

O’Sullivan can pencil in last year’s lineup and feel pretty good about his chances since Florida won 16 of 17 games before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the 2020 season. He also has some daunting decisions ahead: who plays, who sits, who subs, who gets put in every situation the Gators will face when they try to pick up where they left off this weekend.

“If it becomes a burden, then we obviously don’t have the right guys on the roster,” O’Sullivan said. “At the end of the day, I think everybody understands that you can only write nine guys in the lineup. …

“Everybody will get their fair shot, and what they do with their opportunities is totally up to them. I don’t see it as a burden at all.”

The Gators could be tested early. They host in-state rival and No. 21 Miami in a three-game series beginning Friday. It’s also the debut of Florida Ballpark, a $65 million stadium across campus that took 16 months to complete.

Only 1,700 fans will be allowed inside for home games because of social distancing requirements. Tickets are scarce for the opener, and the few available for resale start at around $150 each.

“Having an opportunity to play Miami opening weekend is obviously going to catch everybody’s attention,” O’Sullivan said.

The Gators swept the then-top-ranked Hurricanes in Coral Gables last season and extended their dominance in the series. Florida has won 15 of the last 18 meetings, including five in a row.

Those wins at Miami made Florida the team to beat in 2020 and nothing has changed since. The Gators were voted preseason No. 1 by all six major outlets. It’s the fourth time in the last 10 years they garnered that distinction; no other school has done it more than once.

This time, though, Florida appears to have its most stacked roster.

Weekend starters Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich and Hunter Barco are back along with nearly everyone in a bullpen that combined to go 8-0 with five saves and a 1.76 ERA in 76 2/3 innings last year.

“Everybody is kind of excited, getting ready to try to redo what we did last year and try to get better and make it better,” said Mace, who will start Friday.

Pitching has always been the backbone of O’Sullivan’s teams, but he has an abundance of talent at the plate this time around.

Florida lost one starter — left fielder Austin Langworthy signed with the Detroit Tigers after not getting selected in the shortened MLB draft. Backup infielder/catcher Brady Smith also turned pro and signed with the Texas Rangers.

But the team’s top seven hitters, including dynamic and versatile outfielder Jacob Young, returned. Young hit .450 last year and carries an 18-game hitting streak into the season.

“It doesn’t seem like we really skipped a beat,” said third baseman Kirby McMullen, the lone senior in the projected starting lineup. “Hopefully, we just keep the momentum going from last March.

“We kind of have that feeling that we have some unfinished business from last year. … It feels like we should be able to get back to right where we were at. That’s definitely in the back of our minds.”

Getting to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, remains the top priority for Florida, which has made more trips (seven) to the CWS than any team in the country since O’Sullivan took over in 2008. The Gators went every year between 2015 and ’18 and captured the program’s lone national title in 2017.

They looked like a safe bet to return last season before COVID-19 stopped their run. Players insist it was merely a pause.

“Just trying to finish off what we started last year,” McMullen said. “That target’s just a little bigger now that we’re No. 1. We got to take it head-on and make the most out of it and play every single game like it means something.”

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