The No. 1 overall seed Florida Gators begin action in the 2018 NCAA Baseball Tournament on Friday when they host the Gainesville Regional. Joining UF (42-17) at McKethan Stadium are No. 2 regional seed Jacksonville (39-19), No. 3 seed Florida Atlantic (40-17-1) and No. 4 seed Columbia (20-28).
The Gators, eyeing a second straight College World Series title, are the expected favorite to come out of the double-elimination regional and advance to the Super Regional round of the tournament and face the winner of the North Carolina State-hosted Raleigh Regional.
Here's what you need to know about Florida heading into the regional.
The recent slump
Heading into the last week of the regular season, Florida baseball looked unstoppable. The Gators had won every weekend series during the season and swept three midweek games against Florida State.
Then came the three straight losses to Mississippi State. And then came the 1-2 outing in the SEC Tournament. Add in the 4-1 loss on May 13 to close out the series against Georgia, and Florida has dropped six of its last seven games by a combined 57-20 score.
How the Gators respond to open postseason play will tell a lot about the resolve of this team.
A factor in Florida's late slide: Injuries to three players who have been key to the Gators' success in senior catcher JJ Schwarz, junior pitcher Brady Singer and sophomore pitcher Tyler Dyson.
Schwarz, Florida's all-time leader in career starts who ranks in the top-five in program history in a slew of offensive categories, has missed the last four games with a right-hand fracture and is listed as day-to-day heading into the regional. Schwarz's power at the plate (49 career home runs) and four years of starting experience are invaluable.
Singer, the SEC Pitcher of the Year, has not pitched since May 11 while dealing with hamstring tightness. When he's on the mound, though, the junior righty is one of the best in the country. Singer is 10-1 on the year with a 2.25 ERA over 13 starts. He is a likely top-5 pick in the MLB Draft.
Dyson, the surprising youngster who came up clutch during Florida's postseason run last year, is expected to be healthy and available after not pitching since May 8 while dealing with a shoulder injury. He was moved out of the weekend rotation midway through conference play.
It goes without saying that Singer and No. 2 starter Jackson Kowar lead the way. Both are expected to be first-round picks and have complemented each other throughout the season. The two are a combined 19-5 on the season.
Dyson's return will be nice, regardless of the capacity that coach Kevin O'Sullivan plans to use him.
Don't underestimate freshmen Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich either. Mace gave up just two earned runs over 13.1 combined innings in his last two starts against Mississippi State and LSU. Leftwich, with 20 apperances and nine starts, can be used either as a starter or out of the bullpen to assist sophomore Andrew Baker and freshman Jordan Butler.
Junior Michael Byrne (1.99 ERA, 13 saves) is one of the top closers in the country.
The long ball
Florida's all-around offense is far and away improved from the lineup that won a national championship.
One spot in particular that stands out: the long ball.
Florida has blasted 81 home runs this season, tied for fifth nationally and the most by a UF team since 2010. Seven Gators have hit at least six home runs this season, with junior third baseman and Coral Springs native Jonathan India leading the way with 17. Outfielder Wil Dalton (16) and Schwarz (12) are also in double-digits.
Six of Florida's nine everyday starters in the batting lineup this year — shortstop Deacon Liput, designated hitter Nelson Maldonado, India, Schwarz, second baseman Blake Reese and center fielder Nick Horvath — are upperclassmen. A seventh, sophomore Austin Langworthy, was a starter during Florida's championship run last year. An eighth, Dalton, leads the team with 50 RBI. The ninth, freshman Brady Smith, is hitting .269 with 13 RBI and has committed just three errors in the field.
All games in the Gainesville Regional can be lived streamed on ESPN3 via WatchESPN.
Game 1: noon - No. 4 Columbia vs. No. 1 Florida
Game 2: 6:30 p.m. - No. 3 FAU vs. No. 2 Jacksonville
Game 3: 1 p.m. - Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2
Game 4: 7 p.m. - Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2
Game 5: 1 p.m. - Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4
Game 6: 6 p.m. - Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5
Game 7: (if necessary) – 1 p.m. – Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6