OMAHA, Neb. — LSU and Florida.
The opponents in the best-of-three final of the 2023 Men’s College World Series (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN) know each other well, but also, they really don’t.
Unarguably, the standard-bearer for the modern era of college baseball is LSU, winner of six MCWS titles, but none since 2009. The last time the Tigers reached the finals, they were denied that seventh title in 2017 by… Florida .
Florida is in the conversation as the best program in college baseball during that LSU title drought, making its eighth trip to Omaha since 2010 and its fourth Finals appearance since 2005. Yet somehow the Gators have flown, er , dragged under the national radar.
It is a duel of dynasties. One program seeking to re-establish a place at the top of the sport while the other fights to remind people that they have built their own power program.
“I can see the similarities, for sure,” admitted Cade Beloso, also known as the “Creole Bambineaux,” a fifth-year slugger and spiritual “glue” in the LSU clubhouse. “I think they both have to be the same to be in this place, playing for a national championship.”
The Tigers and Gators certainly looked similar as they walked in their cleats through the tunnels at Charles Schwab Field, aka The Chuck, on Friday for batting practice. What LSU head coach Jay Johnson described as “real adult male rosters” packed with very large humans playing baseball posting very large numbers of baseball players. But the way those rosters were acquired is as different as it is the same, huge new-age transfer portal additions mixed with old-school local recruits.
Florida features third-ranked ESPN.com MLB draft prospect left fielder Wyatt Langford, who hit a stadium-record 456-foot home run in the ninth inning to upset Virginia in the second. MCWS game. The only players ranked above him are the Tigers. LSU’s top-ranked outfielder Dylan Crews is already considered one of the best hitters in recent college baseball memory, hitting .423 with 18 home runs and 69 RBIs. His teammate Paul Skenes, ranked second on that MLB prospect list, has been just as prolific on the mound. He is 12-2 with a 1.69 ERA and a mark of 209 strikeouts in his newly established SEC career. Next year’s MLB draft is likely to be headlined by Florida’s Jac Caglianone, aka “Jactani,” the Swiss Army knife of college baseball, hitting .325 with 31 home runs and 84 RBIs while holding a record pitching of . 7-3 with 85 strikeouts.
“I think initially they were identified by their offense and rightfully so, they have some star power in their lineup and I think our team was the same way,” observed Kevin O’Sullivan, now in his 16th season as the head coach of Florida. . During his tenure, the Gators never missed the NCAA tournament and made eight trips to Omaha. “Obviously, they had Skenes, who had arguably the best season in college baseball history. But, nevertheless, we have Brandon Sproat (8-3, 127 Ks) coming back to school and we have Hurston Waldrep (a Southern Miss transfer who is 10-3), of course, and Jac. So I think the biggest similarity I see just from the outside looking in is the improvement with their bullpen over the course of the year, and I think the same could be told about us too”.
Both teams are led by a pair of Gen Xers whose baseball upbringing has brought them to this point as college baseball coaches in the MCWS. Johnson grew up in the world of West Coast baseball in California, Nevada and Arizona. O’Sullivan grew up in the Sunshine State completely to the core, still leaning on the teachings of his mentor, Bob Shaw, an old-school former major leaguer who pitched in the World Series for the Detroit Tigers and won a World Series of the American Legion. as head coach with O’Sullivan as his catcher.
LSU and Florida are members of the SEC, the league that has produced the last three MCWS champions (8 of the last 13), had at least one team in 13 of the last 14 finals, and this weekend will have both teams in the final. for the fourth time since 2011. But even though they are league mates, when these two titans of college baseball meet Saturday night on the sport’s biggest stage, it will be the first time they have met since March 27. from 2022, a period of 454 days.
They’re so unknown that when LSU first baseman turned folk hero Tre’ Morgan was asked Friday morning for an assessment of his Florida foes, he politely shrugged and passed the task on to teammate Crews, who knew about the other list only because he is a Florida native who grew up playing youth league baseball with a pack of Gators.
To be clear, none of it was a diss.
“We’re focused on our side of the group and the opponents we know we’re going to see when we get here,” Johnson explained, saying his team arrived in Omaha with folders full of information about Stanford, TCU and Wake Forest, the other teams on their side of the field. CWS time. They also had “three empty folders and one labeled Florida 2022, waiting to see who we’d have to face when we got to the finals.”
Florida also admitted not starting a ton of in-depth investigation of the LSU title series. But the Gators, having gone 3-0 through the first six days of the MCWS, resulting in two days off, watched the Tigers like baseball fans, sitting in the stands for Thursday night’s epic semifinal contest. night when LSU edged out Wake Forest in eleven innings to advance.
“It’s been amazing to watch, just as a baseball fan, because all these games have been great, including the ones we’ve been to. I’ll never forget this week, the rest of my life,” he said. Florida catcher and broadcaster BT Riopelle, referring to the fact that nine of the 13 MCWS games played to this point were determined by two runs or less. All three of the Gators’ victories have been one-run victories. “But as good as it has been, the time to reflect on all of that is later.”
Riopelle’s comment set a tone Friday that was widely shared among the teams. Wonder and entertainment are not the goals. Being in a dog pile on either Sunday afternoon or Monday night is. Which is why, even as both teams seemed super relaxed during Friday’s practice sessions at The Chuck.
“Coach has always preached treating every game like it’s a championship game, even if it’s a weeknight game in March,” Crews said. “The idea is that when we reach our ultimate goal, playing a championship game, it feels normal. Every trip is a business trip. But now here we are, in that game, so it feels like business.”
LSU will have to go about its business without Skenes, who pitched eight scoreless innings on Thursday night, unless the championship series gets to Game 3 on Monday night and even then, it probably won’t be ready to go. another long start. Florida’s staff is rested, but it’s their biggest bats that need to wake up. Cade Kurland, Langford and Caglianone, who entered Omaha with a combined 66 home runs and 216 hits, have fought at The Chuck going a combined 4-for-38 at the plate. That’s a .105 batting average.
“There’s a real adjustment to be made here in this ballpark, a great place where runs and extra-base hits can be hard to come by,” O’Sullivan said. “But we’re both in the same boat. So add that to your list of similarities.”
It’s a long list. And on top of that inventory, a similar goal: Win the 2023 Men’s College World Series.
“You want to play against the best,” Morgan said as he made his way to practice field. “I think when we’re done here, whichever team wins, no one can doubt that we did it.”