Heading into his 15th season at the helm in Gainesville, Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan has just about seen it all.
As the 2022 season officially commences Friday when the Gators open spring practice at 2:30 pm, O’Sullivan’s approach hasn’t changed much, if any, after Florida’s 2021 season ended in disappointment.
There’s plenty of reason for UF and its head coach to believe last year was an outlier rather than cause for concern.
“I think the blueprints in place. I think last year was just one of those years where for whatever reason we could not get off to a good start, and every time we seemed to build some momentum we couldn’t sustain it. It was just one of those years,” O’Sullivan said. “The way it ended has stuck inside of our team. That’s not how we are expected to end the season. It was somewhat embarrassing.”
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After the COVID-shortened 2020 season ended with such promise, the 2021 campaign was far more turbulent, starting with the season-opening series with in-state rival Miami.
The Gators went 17-13 in conference play before suffering a trio of losses to end the season, including the final two games at home — in front of a packed crowd, in a state-of-the-art ballpark — in the NCAA Tournament’s Gainesville Regional against the University of South Florida and South Alabama, respectively.
“We’ve got to move forward. Of course there’s things that you change and do differently, and you learn from each year, whether it be successful, when you end up in Omaha and win a national championship, you’re always looking to get better,” O’Sullivan said. “And certainly last year was no different than any other year.”
Certainly there’s reason to believe the Gators, who check in at No. 9 in D1Baseball.com’s preseason top-25 rankings, are set for a return to the nation’s elite.
Florida signed the nation’s no. 10-ranked class, according to Baseball America, and O’Sullivan expects a significant number of the 16 freshmen to carve out a role, especially in the bullpen, where the Gators lack experience while Nick Pogue and Tyler Nesbitt inch closer to a return in March.
“We’re a little bit older position-player wise, but on the pitching side of things, very talented young group, but they are going to have to contribute. There’s no question about that,” he said. “The freshmen are talented. You’ll probably see one, maybe two, freshmen in the weekend rotation. Some freshmen or two at the back end of the game, and those innings are very important, high-leverage situations.”
Considering the volume of additions — and the season the Gators are coming off — O’Sullivan’s preaching the importance of patience a bit more than he typically does.
Liberty University, the first opponent on Florida’s schedule this season, may be unranked, but they’re a competitive program, and it’s a realistic possibility the UF could get off to a bumpy start when the season opens in three weeks with the weekend series against the visiting Eagles.
“There’s going to be a learning curve, and I think all of us are going to be a bit patient and let these guys settle in,” O’Sullivan said. “We did this in 2010 and went to the World Series with a freshman-heavy pitching staff, and then obviously we did it in 2014, we won the SEC Championship with a heavy-freshman pitching class. So it can be done.”
The Gators’ Lone Senior: Garrett Milchin
If anyone within the program needs perspective when it comes to remaining patient, they can take one look at right-handed pitcher Garrett Milchin, the lone senior listed on the roster.
Milchin’s 2018 season at Florida ended prematurely due to Tommy John surgery, and the Windermere native rehabbed and returned to the program only to re-tear his ulnar collateral ligament just before the 2021 season, requiring him to undergo the procedure for a second time.
It was the third procedure the Orlando-area native has had on his elbow since his senior year of high school, and O’Sullivan, cognizant of the toll it’s taken, is hopeful Milchin’s days under the knife are behind him.
“It’s not easy. There’s a lot of tough days in the training room, you know. It’s hard enough to come back from one Tommy John, and he’s had to come back from two,” O’Sullivan said of Milchin. “He’s a young man now, but he kind of leads by example. And his story will be told long after he’s gone. To fight through the adversity that he’s had to go through and to come back, and stay the course, and have to go through that surgery twice — it’s really hard to do.”
UF baseball team’s practices are open to the public. See the schedule here