OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Maybe this wasn’t Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s best team. It is, however, his first national championship team.
A year after the Gators went two games and out at the College World Series with a team seeded No. 1 and loaded with high draft picks, they won five of six in Omaha and completed a sweep of Southeastern Conference rival LSU in the finals with a 6-1 victory Tuesday night.
The Gators scored four runs in the eighth inning to pull away and now, for the first time in the program’s 103-year history, the championship trophy will be with the team when it travels back to Gainesville.
“Just a gritty group, that’s all I can say,” said O’Sullivan, the 10th-year coach who had brought the Gators to Omaha six of the last eight years. “There are other teams that may be bigger and stronger, our starting pitching has carried us the whole year, but we got some timely hits.”
Florida (52-19) posted the eighth sweep in the 15 years of the best-of-three finals format, and first since 2013. LSU (52-20) lost for the first time in seven appearances in a championship game.
Florida was in the CWS for the 11th time and previously had made it to the finals in 2005 and 2011, getting swept each time.
“They’re a very deserving national champion,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I’m happy for Kevin. He works hard, and he has had several teams that maybe were even better than this team and sat up here as disappointed as I am right now. Finally got his championship.”
O’Sullivan got creative for the final game, sending freshman Tyler Dyson to the mound for only his second start and calling on Jackson Kowar, who would have been the starter if a Game 3 had been necessary, to finish the game.
“Something that made this team so special was each and every game, someone new stepped up,” second baseman Deacon Liput said. “You never really knew who that person was going to be.”
On this night, it was Dyson (4-0), who limited the Tigers to three hits in six innings. The Gators staked Dyson to an early 2-0 lead after LSU, one of the best fielding teams in the nation, committed three errors the first two innings.
Things got interesting after Michael Byrne relieved Dyson in the seventh. LSU pulled to 2-1 and would have tied it if not for Jake Slaughter being called for runner interference at second base for sliding into shortstop Dalton Guthrie’s leg as he was throwing to first to turn a double play. Josh Smith, who had run home, was sent back to third, and Beau Jordan flew out to end the inning.
The next inning LSU had runners at the corners, but JJ Schwarz threw out Kramer Robertson at the plate and Zach Watson, the Tigers’ hottest hitter in the CWS, flew out to end the inning.
The Gators scored four times in the bottom of the eighth. LSU reliever Zack Hess hit a batter with the bases loaded, Liput hit a two-run single and Schwarz had a sacrifice fly.
Jared Poche (12-4), the Tigers’ all-time wins leader, took the loss in his last start.
“As a pitcher, once you let go of the baseball, you can’t control anything that happens after that,” he said. “The guys have been making plays for me all year, my entire career. Unfortunately, (they) kicked the ball around a little bit, but these guys, I’d go to war with all these guys on this team.”
Last year was supposed to be O’Sullivan’s best chance to win it all, and it was crushing to go 0-2 in Omaha with a team that had eight players taken in the first 10 rounds of the 2016 Major League Baseball draft.
Florida this year brought back one of the nation’s top weekend rotations in Alex Faedo, Brady Singer and Kowar and a reliever in Byrne who led the country with a school-record 19 saves. Complementing the pitching was a defense that ranked in the top 10 in the country.
All that was missing was consistent offense. The Gators came into this game with no everyday player hitting .300, and they were ranked 227th out of 300 teams with a .258 batting average.
The pitching overshadowed all shortcomings, and the Gators ended up with the No. 3 national seed after sharing the SEC regular-season title with LSU.
“I don’t think anybody thought we would get to this point,” O’Sullivan said. “We had our struggles throughout the year offensively. In mid-March we were hitting about .230 as a team. They kept working and believing, and I told them before the season started that we had what it took, the ingredients, to pull this thing off.”
Michael Papierski, catcher, LSU; Drew Mendoza, first base, Florida State; Nick Madrigal, second base, Oregon State; Dylan Busby, third base, Florida State; Timmy Richards, shortstop, Cal State Fullerton; Duplantis, outfield, LSU; Austin Langworthy, Florida; Watson, outfield, LSU; Brendan McKay, designated hitter, Louisville; Faedo, pitcher, Florida; Singer, pitcher, Florida.
MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER
Faedo was named the Most Outstanding Player after two strong starts against TCU. Faedo allowed five hits and no runs and struck out 22 in 14 1/3 innings against TCU.