-Photo by Jordan McPherson
Kevin O’Sullivan has a set of luxuries on his baseball team this season that have been few and far between during his first nine seasons as the head coach of the Florida Gators: Two-way players.
They are those rare players who have the ability to contribute to the team both on the mound as a pitcher and in the field as position players.
In total, O’Sullivan has seven of these two-way players at his disposal this season. Six of them are freshmen.
“I've always enjoyed those type of players,” O’Sullivan said back in the fall. “I think they're better baseball players.”
They also allow O’Sullivan the opportunity to get creative with how he plays matchups with his bullpen.
Take Tuesday’s 4-3 win over UCF as an example.
In the top of the seventh with one out, the bases loaded and a 3-1 lead, O’Sullivan called on junior Nick Horvath from the bullpen. The 5-11 lefty got a quick out after letting a runner cross, intentionally walked a UCF batter to reload the bases before getting out of the jam.
The next inning, Horvath found himself in center field with Frank Rubio taking over as the pitcher. Rubio tossed a clean eighth and recorded two of the final three outs needed in the ninth before giving up a walk and pair of singles to make it a 4-3 ballgame. O’Sullivan trotted to the mound, took the ball from Rubio and signaled for Horvath to come back to the mound. Horvath struck out the first batter he faced the second time around to clinch the win.
“It was fun,” O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan has plans to potentially do more than that, though.
He devised a scenario where if the situation presented itself and an opponent’s lineup late in a close game continuously alternated from left-hander to right-hander, he could himself alternate between a righty closer -- like, say, Rubio -- with a lefty reliever such as Andrew Baker, Horvath or Austin Langworthy by switching the two between the pitching mound and an outfield position.
Sounds crazy, right? Maybe even on the verge of rule-breaking.
Well, based on one rule in the NCAA’s baseball rulebook, it’s actually completely legal.
And, if used correctly, the application of this rule could be the missing piece of the puzzle O’Sullivan has been searching for in his quest to bring a national title back to Gainesville.
Here’s how it works.
The Designated Hitter Rule
Just about every college baseball team takes advantage of what’s known as the designated hitter rule.
It’s a policy that allows a player to take the pitcher’s spot in the nine-person batting order and has two obvious benefits.
The first: The pitcher doesn’t have to bat, which is normally a preferred scenario considering most pitchers don’t focus on their performance at the plate.
The second: It frees up the lineup for an extra batter who might not be able to make the lineup otherwise due to competition at a certain position in the field or due to his poor defensive prowess.
The designated hitter, usually simplified to DH, is not mandatory. A coach can simply use his pitcher in the lineup if he desires, which, according to the rulebook, would treat him as both a pitcher and a designated hitter. Should the pitcher exit the game in this scenario, a coach is able to substitute in two players for him: One as a pitcher, the other as a designated hitter.
But take a look at the NCAA baseball rulebook, and you can see how versatile teams can get if they know the rule well enough and have the two-way players to take advantage of the policy.
As it is written in a subsection of Rule 7, Section 2: “A pitcher who is removed from the pitching position but remains in the game as a defensive player may return to the mound only once.”
This means that a pitcher is able to go to the mound twice overall in any given game so long as he remains on the field at another position during the stretch of time between his two appearances on the mound. Doing so, however, eliminates the DH slot for that team for the rest of the game, forcing a pitcher to be part of the nine-person batting order for the rest of the game unless he is subbed out for a pinch-hitter.
It had been almost three years since the Gators utilized that little-used rule in a real-game situation before doing so with Horvath on Tuesday. Back on April 12, 2014, A.J. Puk entered the game against No. 4 South Carolina as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning and roped an RBI double to left-center field and later scored himself.
After the inning ended, he entered the game at first base and stayed there until the 10th inning of a 3-3 ballgame when O'Sullivan called him to the mound. The 6-7 lefty tossed a perfect frame and stayed on until O'Sullivan moved him back to first base for the final out of the 11th.
Puk returned to the mound for the second time with two outs in the 12th and recorded five straight outs to help the Gators clinch a 13-inning, 4-3 win over the Gamecocks.
“There’s a lot of different things we can do,” O’Sullivan said. “So we’ve had to spend a lot of time knowing the DH rule inside and out, but we have some baseball players who can do both.”
Let’s now revisit that Rubio-Horvath outfield-pitcher scenario O’Sullivan proposed and assume that neither has been on the mound when they both enter the game.
The batting order for this hypothetical -- a one-run game in the bottom of the ninth -- stands as follows: A lefty, a righty, a lefty and then another righty.
O’Sullivan puts Horvath on the mound first to start the inning and opts to have Rubio, a natural pitcher who "has caught a lot of fly balls," in right field. Horvath gets the out. One down.
Next up is the first righty. O’Sullivan loves playing matchups when the game is close, so he sends Horvath to right field and has Rubio make his first appearance on the mound. Rubio, the sidearm throwing senior who has a fastball that rests around 91 mph, gets a strikeout. Two gone.
Another lefty comes to the plate. Horvath now comes back to the mound for his second -- and final, per the rulebook -- pitching appearance of the game and Rubio heads back to the outfield. For this scenario, let’s say Horvath gives up a hit, putting the game-tying run on the basepaths with a right-handed batter stepping up to the plate.
O’Sullivan trots back to the mound for the third time this inning, sending Horvath back to the outfield and Rubio back to the mound one last time. The senior gets the final out, Florida gets the win and the team dogpiles in celebration.
In that final inning, O’Sullivan used two pitchers twice in a flip-flopping fashion that adheres to the rulebook.
He doesn’t have to stop there, though. With more than a half-dozen two-way players at his disposal, O’Sullivan just as easily could rotate guys in the outfield after exhausting each pitcher's maximum two mound appearances per game.
“It’s creative,” O’Sullivan said, “but we can’t do that all the time.”
Lengthening the Lineup
Horvath said Tuesday was the first time he ever went from pitching to playing center field to pitching again in the same game, let alone in the span of three innings.
It was an adjustment, he said, one he had to make immediately in order to keep the team’s lead in a critical situation.
“You have to go right at them,” Horvath said. “Right from the get-go.”
But having a bevy of two-way players helps with more than just crafty relief pitching scenarios. These players have the potential more so to help the Gators lengthen their lineup and add an extra dimension to their offense that has been lacking down the stretch in recent years.
Playing in the Southeastern Conference, O’Sullivan has said, requires top-notch pitching and textbook defense. This is the priority when O’Sullivan and his assistant coaches go out and recruit.
But when a team reaches the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, and there is a day off between games, it makes it feasible to rely on two or three starting pitchers and a couple of reliable relievers to carry the pitching load. This, in turn, makes production at the plate all the more valuable and has the potential to devalue that pitching depth that propelled the team into the postseason.
“It's a fine line,” O’Sullivan said, “because the formula to win in the SEC may be a little bit different than in Omaha. It's our job to adjust and to be able to make those adjustments.”
Florida has fallen victim to those lack of adjustments each of the last two years.
After rely on pitching staffs that have had 12 players taken in the MLB Draft and back-to-back top-five defenses, both teams found themselves leaving Omaha empty. In seven combined games over those two years -- including an 0-2 exit last season -- Florida had four games where it scored four runs or fewer. All were losses. UF managed just three runs and 13 total hits during its back-to-back losses in 2016.
“We want to get back to Omaha because that's the only way we'll have a chance of winning it," Friday-night pitcher Alex Faedo said, "but going to Omaha is not just the goal.
"Winning it is the goal."
With the help of those two-way players, Florida could have the chance to do just that.