Editor’s Note: This article was written by Eli Marger, a University of Florida graduate, and also a graduate from the Wake Forest School of Law. He makes up half of the E2 Podcast, a baseball podcast that touches on a bevy of topics, and can be found offering takes on sports, hip-hop music, and food on his Twitter account. Thanks to Eli for the piece from a Florida perspective!
The narrative for this weekend’s super regional between Wake Forest and Florida in Gainesville is clear: will Florida’s elite pitching staff prevail over Wake Forest’s power-packed and productive lineup?
What I’m here to do is to briefly give a Florida perspective on this matchup. Having attended both universities, it will be fun to watch both of my alma maters go at it. But being a lifelong Gator fan and having some background in sports writing, Riley asked me to give the Florida spin for what appears to be Wake Forest’s biggest weekend of baseball in a long time.
Here’s the rub on the Gators: the team is dripping with talent. There are up to four 2017 first-round draft picks on the roster – ace righty Alex Faedo, infielders J.J. Schwarz and Dalton Guthrie, and catcher Mike Rivera. Several others, including Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, who Wake will likely see on Sunday and Monday (if necessary), will be first rounders in upcoming drafts.
For as much talent as Florida has and as good as they have been in 2017, the biggest source of concern has been inconsistent production from the lineup. The Gators average a healthy 5.58 runs per game, but out of 62 games, they have scored three or fewer runs in 21 of them (however, they’ve scored seven or more runs in 20 of them).
To an extent, the Gators have struggled getting guys on base throughout the year, ranking 197th in batting average among D1 programs, and 141st in on-base percentage. Even when men reach base, timely hitting with runners in scoring position has been an issue as well. Despite improving production the last few weeks, Florida remains prone to laying a metaphorical egg offensively, which can be fatal at this stage in the season.
Despite those shortcomings, there are a few reasons to feel optimistic about Florida’s lineup moving forward. First and foremost, leadoff man and center fielder Ryan Larson will be in the lineup (link to Gville sun article) this weekend for the first time since being hit by a pitch in the SEC Tournament. Larson, who hits .318/.406/.478, will be a catalyst at the top of the lineup to set the plate for Florida’s middle of the order, which includes Schwarz, Guthrie, outfielders Nelson Maldonado and Austin Langworthy, and third baseman Jonathan India.
As Bart indicated, the Gators lineup has some moving parts. Regardless of the exact lineup card Kevin O’Sullivan trots out, having Larson back should be a major boost.
I don’t think I am insulting anyone here by saying that Wake Forest’s pitching rotation is not going to threaten the Gators’ lineup. Parker Dunshee has done a respectable job anchoring the rotation and commanding his pitches, but when your ace has a 4.14 ERA and 4.49 FIP, there is certainly potential for the opponent to take advantage.
The key for Wake Forest’s pitchers is going to be not issuing walks. Dunshee especially, but Sellers and Johnston too, have done a reasonably good job of limiting walks this season. It’s especially important against a Florida team who occasionally suffers from a poor collective approach at the plate to not gift baserunners. In 16 of Florida’s 20 most productive offensive games, they walked at least six times.
It will be tempting to nibble around the corners against these dangerous Florida hitters, but the numbers suggest that throwing strikes and inducing contact may be the more effective strategy. If the Deacs can limit walks, they have a reasonable chance of keeping Florida’s offense in check. The Gators production is trending upwards, however, so throwing strikes may simply be inviting batting practice.
On the other side of things, Florida’s pitching staff will face a stiff test against the power-packed Wake Forest lineup. Much has been said about the home field advantage Wake Forest gets in terms of lineup production, but a good lineup is a good lineup. The trio of Faedo, Singer, and Kowar is likely one of the top two or three rotations Wake will see.
Again, Bart did a nice job covering the pitching rotation. When Faedo is on – which is often – it’s hard to beat the Gators. Singer may be every bit as good as Faedo, and Kowar may have the best stuff of the three of them, even if he struggles with command at times. Florida’s bullpen doesn’t overwhelm you – though the trio of Frank Rubio, Garrett Milchin, and Nick Horvath is fairly strong. Then there’s Michael Byrne, the All-American closer who has struck out 74 batters to 12 walks in 63.2 innings this season.
Wake may be kept in the ballpark more than they’re used to on account of McKethan Stadium’s slightly larger dimensions, but the Gainesville humidity should be conducive to balls carrying, even if they stay within the confines. The Deacs should stay aggressive, especially with the Florida starters’ propensity to get ahead in counts. As good as the Wake Forest lineup is, there aren’t many (or any) teams who will have success against Florida consistently getting in two-strike counts.
For Florida, it’s a fairly simple blueprint. Get six or seven quality innings out of Faedo and Singer, get to the Wake Forest starters early and often, and get Byrne in the game in high-leverage situations.
For Wake, it’s a tall task to go into Gainesville and take two games. But the Deacs may have the best lineup the Gators have seen all year, and pose the greatest threat of creating the Gators’ nightmare scenario – a starter gets knocked out early, leaving the bullpen to try and keep the game within reach while the offense attempts to catch up or keep pace. If the Deacs can create the runs and get great performances out of Dunshee, Sellers, and Johnston, there’s no reason they can’t win this series.
As much as Florida’s pitching versus Wake Forest’s lineup will be talked about, the determining factor in this series may well be how the Deacs pitch. A weekend of great performances may send them to Omaha, and a weekend of mediocre pitching likely sends them back to Winston-Salem on Sunday night.