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OMAHA, NE — Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan never questioned if the Gators would win a national championship in baseball.
For O’Sullivan, the question was when.
“It was inevitable,” he said Tuesday night in the aftermath of Florida’s dogpile celebration that followed a 6-1 victory over LSU to sweep the College World Series finals. “I just didn’t know which team it was going to be.”
Ten years ago this month, Florida hired O’Sullivan, a native son, from his post as Clemson’s pitching coach to reinvigorate the Gators, who had struggled on the mound after losing the 2005 championship series to Texas.
Florida lost again in the 2011 finals to South Carolina. Last year, its fifth trip to Omaha in seven seasons, Florida entered as the No. 1 seed with starting pitchers selected in the first and second rounds of the MLB draft.
It promptly lost two straight games. A.J. Puk, the No. 6 overall pick in the draft, didn’t throw a pitch in the CWS.
The returning Gators did not wither, in large part because of O’Sullivan’s unwavering confidence in his pitching and defense — pillars of his reconstruction project at Florida — sprinkled with a dash of timely hitting.
His confidence was on full display Tuesday at TD Ameritrade Park. Confidence that propelled Florida to a championship.
“We played to win tonight, not to get to Game 3,” said ace pitcher Alex Faedo, the most outstanding player in Omaha for his work in two victories last week over TCU. “Sully believed in us that we could get the job done.”
The conservative play for O’Sullivan in the late innings Tuesday, up in the series after a 4-3 win Monday, would have been to stick with his bullpen regulars. If the Gators lost, they had sophomore star Jackson Kowar ready to start in a winner-take-all game for the title Wednesday.
Instead, O’Sullivan pushed all of his chips to the center of the table. He called for Kowar to relieve closer Michael Byrne with one out in the eighth inning as Florida clung to a 2-1 lead with LSU runners at first and third base.
The simple decision to send Kowar to the bullpen invigorated the dugout, Faedo said.
“We rolled the dice,” O’Sullivan said. “If it doesn’t work out, it’s a dumb move. If it works, it looks like you made the right decision.”
Guess how it looks?
Yeah, pretty smart. In his first relief appearance of the season, Kowar got LSU slugger Greg Deichmann to ground to first base. JJ Schwarz fired home to Mike Rivera, who applied the tag to Kramer Robertson, denying the Tigers their tying run.
“Probably saved us the game,” O’Sullivan said.
Zach Watson then lined out to a sliding Nick Horvath in center field, snuffing the rally. It came one inning after LSU was denied a sure run on an interference call as Jake Slaughter tried to break up a double play by sliding into shortstop Dalton Guthrie.
You might say this was just the Gators’ night. Or you could say, like O’Sullivan, that this was inevitable.
“Those guys in the previous two years,” Faedo said, “they showed us the way. I think being here twice and not winning the last game of the year, it was hard for us. But they showed us how to battle through adversity.”
O’Sullivan, 48, pushed all the right buttons in the championship series.
From his management Monday, inserting Byrne in the eighth inning after starter Brady Singer struck out 12, to the timing Tuesday of his moves from starter Tyler Dyson — in just his second start of the year — to Byrne and Kowar, O’Sullivan had the look, for sure, of a coach who knew his players well and his opponent nearly as well.
Finally on Tuesday after dodging LSU’s best shots in the seventh and eighth, the Gators broke through with four runs off the Tigers’ freshman closer, Zack Hess.
Never mind that this team hit .222 in Omaha, the lowest batting average by a champion since 1972 USC.
Byrne said they grew confident from sensing the coach’s confidence. In tense moments, they thrived.
“It’s been a long season of tense moments,” Byrne said. “It’s never easy for us.”
National titles aren’t supposed to come easily. The first one, especially.
“I’m just kind of numb, to be honest with you,” O’Sullivan said, the celebratory music still playing as he scanned the field and nearby stage on which the Gators accepted their championship trophy from NCAA president Mark Emmert.
“I don’t know what to think. I’m running around. I’m thinking about a lot of things. I’m looking around, seeing all the happy faces and hugs. I’m just trying to soak it in.”
For a decade, he didn’t necessarily have to dream of this moment, because O’Sullivan always knew he would someday live it.
As for the Gators, well, maybe they dreamed.
“It will sink in tomorrow morning when I wake up in the hotel bed,” Byrne said. “I’ll be like, ‘Holy cow, we’re national champs.’ It’ll be kind of weird. First in school history — and we’ll always be remembered for that.”