Faced with trying to hold on to a 2-1 lead late in game two of the College World Series Finals, Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan could have played it safe.
He could have turned to lesser-used arms in the bullpen to try to piece together the last few innings, knowing that, if all else failed, his team would still have game three on Wednesday to clinch a national championship.
Instead, he went for it.
After starting pitcher Tyler Dyson exited having thrown six very strong innings, he turned to closer Michael Byrne once again. Byrne had thrown two innings on Monday evening in the Gators’ 4-3 win, collecting his 19th save of the season. On Tuesday, LSU got four hits against him in 1.1 innings, but thanks in large part to a runner’s interference call on Jake Slaughter on what would have been a run-scoring double-play ball that ended up bringing a runner back to third base, Byrne escaped without allowing a run in the outing.
Then, when Byrne left with two men on and one out in the eighth inning, O’Sullivan doubled down on his approach by bringing on probable game three starting pitcher Jackson Kowar to shut the door. If Kowar stumbled and gave up the lead, not only would Florida be staring in the face of a deciding game three, but they would have had to do so without the guy they were probably planning on starting.
Instead, Kowar gave his team just what they needed. He got Greg Deichmann to hit a grounder to first, allowing J.J. Schwarz to nab LSU’s Kramer Robertson trying to score from third. Then he got Zach Watson to line out to center field to end the threat.
Four Florida runs in the bottom of the eighth inning extended the lead to 6-1 and allowed Kowar to throw free and easy on the way to collecting the final three outs.
For LSU, the loss had to hurt, and not just because they were denied a chance to go into a deciding game three with Alex Lange on the mound, giving them a distinct pitching advantage.
Adding insult to the injury, much of the damage was self-inflicted. Both of the Florida runs early in the game were unearned. In the first, the Gators plated a run on a Schwarz RBI single after an error by LSU first baseman Nick Coomes got the inning started and allowed Deacon Liput to reach. In the second, the UF run came home on a Liput RBI single immediately after a Coomes throwing error moved Nick Horvath into scoring position.
Then there were the seventh and eighth innings, which were largely defined by the baserunning error by Slaughter in the seventh (a miscue by the letter of the rule book, no matter how you personally feel about the rule itself) and by the Tigers’ inability to bring guys home with runners in scoring position and less than two outs.
For Florida, the title feels like a long time coming. There have been a litany of teams during the Kevin O’Sullivan era that have gotten awfully close. In his ten seasons at the helm, his program has reached Omaha six times, and they finished as the runner-up to South Carolina in 2011.
The talent to come through Gainesville during that time, of course, is staggering. Under O’Sullivan, they’ve had six first round picks and 17 players taken in the first three rounds. That’s to say nothing of the numerous All-American-type players that might not have been considered big-time prospects.
Attaching the “can’t win the big one” scarlet letter to a coach in college baseball who consistently gets his team to the CWS is silly. When you compete in a sport where losing two out of three games at any point over the entire month of June will get you eliminated, just getting to Omaha is quite the accomplishment. But for all of those reasons previously stated, the consistent trips to the CWS and the parade of talent to come to campus, there were some who were undoubtedly waiting with baited breath to attach that stigma to him.
But as if he were fighting off those critics with his pitching decisions, O’Sullivan coached game two to win it, and win it he did. Florida, after years of knocking on the door, knocked it down.