In what should be one of the feature matchups of this College World Series, the Virginia Cavaliers draw the Florida Gators as their opening opponent. The Gators are the #2 National Seed joining Wake Forest and the Hoos as the only teams in the country with at least 50 wins. Florida went 20-10 in the mighty SEC on their way to the number one seed in the SEC Tournament (where they lost to Vanderbilt in the Semifinals). In the NCAA Regionals, they dropped their second game to Texas Tech, but battled back to beat the UConn Huskies and then got revenge on Texas Tech beating the Red Raiders twice to advance to the Super Regionals. From there, they dispatched of the South Carolina Gamecocks, a team who swept them in the regular season, in just two games to advance to their 13th trip to Omaha.
The lineup is led by a pair of National College Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) All-Americans, Wyatt Langford and Jac Caglianone. Langford led the team in batting average at .372, chipped in 18 home runs, 24 doubles, and led the squad in walks with 51. He was also 12th in the country in slugging percentage. Caglianone was a finalist for this year’s John Olerud award, an honor given annually to the best two-way player in the country. More on his pitching prowess later, but as a first baseman, Caglianone belted a nation-leading 31 home runs and drove in 84 RBI, one shy of the program record for a season. Joining them with All-American honors is shortstop Josh Rivera who, on his way to third team honors, batted .362 with 17 home runs and led the team with 16 stolen bases. His double play mate up the middle is Cade Kurland who was named All-SEC First Team as a Freshman while batting .300 with 16 home runs and was fourth on the team in runs scored with 68. Luke Heyman is the team’s freshman DH who batted .327 and belted 11 home runs in only 49 games played and was named to the All-SEC Freshman team. Also keep an eye on BT Riopelle. The senior catcher only batted .250 but knocked 16 home runs.
As a team, they’re strength is obviously in their power. They were second in the SEC and tied for 4th nationally with 129 home runs. At .293, they’re batting average was also tied for second in the conference, the same with runs scored at 521.
Pitching-wise, they’re middle of the pack in the SEC with a 4.52 ERA, but that’s to be expected given the strength of schedule they play week in and week out. They were third in the conference in strikeouts with 668 good for a K/9 Inning rate of 10.79.
Brandon Sproat leads the way on Friday nights. The All-SEC Second Teamer went 8-3 with a 4.59 ERA to go along with 120 strikeouts and a 1.21 WHIP. The Gator’s second starter is Hurston Waldrep. Waldrep is a strikeout machine coming up with 142 in 93.1 innings good for a 13.63 K/9 Innings which was fourth in the nation. Next we get to Caglianone who led the starters with a 3.78 ERA on his way to a 7-3 record. As good a hitter as he was, he was just as unhittable as a starter allowing batters to hit a mere .184 against him.
The Gators staff is bolstered at the back end by All-SEC First Teamer Brandon Neely. The Florida closer went 0-2 on the year, but saved 13 games. His 12.52 K/9 Innings was third on the team behind Waldrep and Philip Abner. Abner played a shut down role coming in to face a couple batters at a time chalking up 31.1 innings pitched over 25 appearances. In long relief and an occasional start is Ryan Slater who led the Gators with a 10-1 record. The sophomore right hander had a 1.17 WHIP in 56.1 innings pitched. Finally, there’s Cade Fisher who, in 41.2 innings pitched, had a 3.02 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Ultimately, it might not be the best staff in the country in terms of talent, but they’re very deep and well suited for a long two weeks in Omaha.
As Will Campbell pointed out in his College World Series primer, the Hoos and Gators are no strangers to one another in Omaha. Back in Virginia’s magical 2015 run to the title, the Hoos went 2-1 against the heavily favored Gators including pitching performances that cemented Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz as UVA legends. The two combined on a two-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory, then came back five days later and pitched five and four innings respectively as the Hoos defeated Florida 5-4 and advanced to the College World Series Final. The two teams will meet again in Omaha Friday at 7 p.m. in a game that will be televised on ESPN.