The SEC baseball schedule is at the halfway point, and the Florida Gators are still in the running for a regular-season crown. There were struggles early, but the No. 12 Gators sit at 8-7 through five conference weekends. That’s just two games behind SEC East leader Kentucky and three games back from overall conference leader Arkansas with 15 more games to go. Here’s a closer look at how Florida has fared throughout conference play.
Auburn: Florida got off to arguably its worst conference start in recent history when it was swept on the road by Auburn in the first series. The Tigers jumped on ace Alex Faedo for six runs (all earned) in just 4 1/3 innings en route to a 14-3 win. Auburn took the following two games 2-1 and 6-5. The Gators hit a paltry .194 in the three-game set and recorded more strikeouts (22) than hits (18) at the plate.
LSU: Dominant pitching in the first two games carried Florida to its first conference win of the year. Faedo tossed seven scoreless innings and struck out seven in a 1-0 win to open the set. Sophomore Brady Singer upped the ante a day later by tossing his first career complete game in an 8-1 series clincher. The Tigers stopped the bleeding on Sunday by ripping apart Florida’s bullpen for a 10-6 win. LSU hit three two-run home runs in the span of five plate appearances and scored eight unanswered runs all together to close out the series.
Missouri: All three games in this road series were decided by one run, and all three went in favor of Florida. It started with a 4-3 win on Friday. The Gators jumped out to a 4-0 lead through the first six innings, highlighted by a two-run homer by Mike Rivera. Missouri tacked on three runs (just one earned) in the seventh and eighth off Faedo before Michael Byrne earned his third save of the year. UF won the second and third games both by 2-1 scores and had a home run from Jonathan India on Saturday and JJ Schwarz on Sunday.
Tennessee: It was another series all decided by one run. Tennessee won the first two games -- both extra-inning affairs -- by scores of 7-6 and 3-2 before Florida turned it around and won the series finale 5-4 to avoid the home sweep. Florida’s offense struggled mightily, stranding 34 runners on base over the three games.
Vanderbilt: After struggling on offense for most of the season, Florida was as productive as it had been all year in the first and third games of its series against Vanderbilt. UF opened with a 10-6 come-from-behind victory on Thursday that featured 17 hits and a 5-for-5 night from senior outfielder Ryan Larson. UF scored seven unanswered runs in the final four innings -- including five in the ninth while trailing 6-5 -- to take the opener. After being shut out and limited to just three hits on Friday, the Gators clinched the series over the Commodores on Saturday with a 20-8 victory. Every starter reached base at least twice and the Gators crushed four home runs.
Offense MVP: Ryan Larson
Known primarily for his defense through his first three years, Larson (photo, right) has flourished at the plate this season. In conference play, Larson leads the team in batting average (.412), slugging percentage (.608), hits (21), runs scored (12) and doubles (five). He’s also third with a .483 on-base percentage and his success has moved him from the bottom of the order to batting cleanup over the past two games.
His unforeseen success has been much needed for an offense that has seen most of its main contributors in JJ Schwarz (.220 in conference play), Jonathan India (.143) and Dalton Guthrie (.135) struggling at the plate halfway through the conference schedule.
Pitching MVP: Brady Singer
Yes, Brady Singer is only 2-2 in conference play, but that record has a lot more to do with Florida’s hit-and-miss offense than Singer’s domination on the mound in the middle of the rotation.
Singer, a 6-5 righty with three pitches in his arsenal that he can throw for strikes, is fourth among SEC starting pitchers with a 1.79 ERA in conference play. He has tossed three complete games and is the only conference pitcher with more than 40 innings worth of work after five SEC weekends.
The rest of his stats in conference play carry solid weight as well: 28 strikeouts to just eight walks; no more than two earned runs in a start all season; a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of just 0.97.
When at his prime, his sinking fastball can hit 97 mph and he also has great command of his slider and change-up on both sides of the plate and touch the high 80's and low 90s.
The Conference Road Ahead
Home vs. No. 13 South Carolina (April 20-22): South Carolina is an annual contender but has lost six of its last nine conference games. Second baseman LT Tolbert (.333 batting average, 27 RBI) leads the offense and Friday starter Clarke Schmidt (4-1, 1.31 ERA, 68 strikeouts in 51 innings) is off to an incredible start to the season.
Road vs. Georgia (April 28-30): The Bulldogs have lost five of their last six conference games and are just 15-22 overall on the season. They are last in the conference in both ERA (4.96 overall, 6.14 in conference play) and fielding (.953 overall. .955 in conference play).
Home vs. Ole Miss (May 5-7): The Rebels are hovering at 7-8 in conference play after opening with a schedule that included a home series with Vanderbilt (2-1) and trips to Kentucky (1-2) and LSU (1-2). After starting the season off with a 7-0 record with sweeps over then-ranked East Carolina and UNC-Wilmington, Ole Miss has gone just 15-14 with a 6-8 record against ranked opponents.
Road vs. Alabama (May 12-14): The Crimson Tide has lost eight of its last nine, with its only win being a 6-4 midweek contest against UAB. Alabama is hitting an SEC-worst .232 in league games and does not have a regular starter hitting above .300 in conference play.
Home vs. No. 10 Kentucky (May 18-20): Kentucky is the frontrunner in the SEC East after five weekends mostly due to its offense. The Wildcats are averaging 6.3 runs per conference game, second only to league-leader Arkansas (6.5). Kentucky also has five players batting above .300 this season, paced by junior Evan White (.388/.682/.486). The SEC East (and potentially the conference as a whole) could come down to this series if both teams play well over the next four weeks.
Welcome back, Austin Langworthy
After missing a month of the season with a broken hamate bone in his right wrist, freshman Austin Langworthy returned to the lineup this week and showed just how valuable he can be at the plate. In four games, the power-hitting lefty posted a .412 batting average (7 for 17) with five RBI and three runs scores. The outfielder and left-handed pitcher also drew five walks and stole three bases. Langworthy’s ability to continue this run could be critical for the Gators’ offense in the back half of conference play.
Support for Singer
Brady Singer has been Florida’s best starting pitcher this year (see above for why if you missed it). But even at that, Singer only has a 4-2 record in nine starts, and the Gators are 5-4 in games where Singer is the starter. The main problem: Run support. Florida’s offense has generated two runs or fewer in six of Singer’s nine starts this season. That’s only happened to Florida’s other weekend starts -- Alex Faedo and Jackson Kowar -- three times in their 18 combined starts.
Florida’s had its share of injuries to fight through this season. In addition to Langworthy, fellow outfielder/pitcher Andrew Baker broke the hamate bone in his non-throwing hand before the season and missed fall camp. Shortstop Dalton Guthrie and third baseman Jonathan India have experienced tenderness in their throwing shoulders/elbows. Guthrie returned to the field last week after being in the DH role for three weeks, while India has not played in the field for the last three weeks. And now, catcher Mike Rivera is out for a month while dealing with a wrist injury of his own after being hit by a pitch against FSU on April 11. Florida has held its own despite these injuries. Christian Hicks has rotated around the infield and been plugged in wherever he is needed. Mark Kolozsvary had a solid weekend behind the plate and as a hitter against Vanderbilt (.333 batting average and caught two runners stealing).
Team Stats in conference play
Batting average: .264 (5th)
Runs/game: 5 (7th)
Home runs: 10 (T-10th)
Slugging: .386 (6th)
On-base percentage: .356 (4th)
Walks: 60 (2nd)
Strikeouts: 106 (11th)
Stolen bases: 25 (1st)
ERA: 3.86 (6th)
WHIP: 1.37 (7th)
K/9 innings: 8.12 (8th)
K/BB ratio: 2.73 (6th)
HR allowed: 5 (1st)
Fielding Percentage: .969 (12th)
Errors committed: 18 (3rd)
Double plays turned: 14 (6th)
Caught stealing percentage: 60% (1st)
South Carolina: 8-7
Mississippi State: 10-5
Texas A&M: 8-7
Ole Miss: 7-8