GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan was starting to put his inaugural signing class together for the 2009 season, he met with his staff and made a decision that would eventually result in a national championship nearly a decade later.
Pitching and defense were going to be the priority. Especially pitching. That was what O’Sullivan, a former catcher at Virginia and nine-year Clemson pitching coach and coordinator, wanted to build his program around.
Nine years later, Florida under O’Sullivan has become Pitching U. No school in the country has had more pitchers drafted in the first round since 2010 and that’s a major reason why the Gators have reached the College World Series six of the past eight seasons and won the program’s first national title last year.
And why they’re the favorite to win it again this year. The Gators’ quest to win back-to-back championships begins Sunday when they take on Texas Tech in Omaha (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and the ESPN App).
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” O’Sullivan said. “You just kind of build on your early success and you start getting a reputation of guys going better in the draft, and it certainly helps.”
Seven Gators pitchers under O’Sullivan have been taken in the first round, beginning with left-hander Brian Johnson (31st overall by Boston) in 2012. Right-hander Jonathan Crawford was taken 20th overall in 2013 by Detroit, followed by left-hander A.J. Puk (sixth overall by Oakland) and right-hander Dane Dunning (29th overall by Washington) in 2016, and right-hander Alex Faedo (18th overall by Detroit) in 2017.
Last week right-handers Brady Singer (18th) and Jackson Kowar (33rd) were drafted by Kansas City. Singer was Baseball America’s National Player of the Year after leading the SEC with 11 victories and a .188 opponents’ batting average. Kowar struggled late in the season but rebounded with a strong performance against Auburn in Game 2 of the Super Regional last weekend.
“Elite,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said after watching the Gators’ pitching staff limited the Tigers to just seven runs in the three-game series. “Elite.
“… That is what’s created greatness around here.”
O’Sullivan has not only produced first-round draft picks, he has had 49 pitchers drafted since 2008 — including 15 in the first five rounds. One of those players is right-hander Logan Shore, whom Oakland drafted in the second round in 2016. He credits O’Sullivan for helping him — and every other pitcher — learn how to pitch.
The lessons he learned under O’Sullivan were invaluable, Shore said, and it started the first time he threw for the Gators as a freshman.
“I remember my first bullpen as a freshman was summer of 2013. We were all throwing in the bullpens and everybody’s throwing as hard as they can to show up everybody else,” Shore said. “I remember him kind of chewing us out, saying it’s not about velocity. It’s about the location of your pitches, the movement of your pitches, and velocity always comes third.
“He teaches how to pitch. He teaches the mental side of the game. Coming out of there after three years I felt extremely prepared to go into pro ball and to pitch. I’m in Double-A now and I feel like everything that’s been taught at Florida has been something I’ve been able to use up until this point.”
O’Sullivan’s rules are pretty simple. Keep the ball down. Throw two of your first three pitches for strikes. Don’t walk hitters. There’s obviously more to pitching than that, but in following those concepts will keep you on the mound — especially avoiding walks.
“You have to throw strikes,” said reliever Michael Byrne, who holds the UF career record with 34 saves. “If you don’t throw strikes, you’re not going to be successful and that’s his main teaching thing. You can’t walk people and if you walk people here you’re not going to play. “If you want to play you’ve got to throw the ball over the plate.”
The Gators (47-19) had little trouble doing that in 2018. They finished second in the SEC in fewest walks allowed (194) and ERA (3.51) and led the SEC in opponent batting average (.231). Auburn scored 40 runs and hit .424 as a team in its three games in the Raleigh (North Carolina) Regional but scored two, three and two runs and had only four extra-base hits in the three games at McKethan Stadium.
Singer and Kowar combined to hold the Tigers to just seven hits in 13⅔ innings and Byrne didn’t give up a single run in 6⅓ inning of relief.
O’Sullivan said the Gators’ next two pitching stars are going to be Jack Leftwich and Tommy Mace. They’re freshmen and O’Sullivan put them on the mound in Monday night’s elimination game. Leftwich gave up four hits and one run in five innings and Mace gave up one run and one hit in two innings. The Gators eventually won the game 3-2 in the 11th inning on Austin Langworthy’s solo home run.
“We’ve had quite the run of pitchers,” O’Sullivan said. “I think it’s taken a while to get it to this point, but it goes back to, first, our recruiting class. Then you have your next batch of guys that come in and the next batch. It’s like every three or four years. I think those guys have kind of set the bar as far as that’s concerned and we’ve just been fortunate to get some really good guys to school.”
If the Gators earn another national title in Omaha on the arms of Singer and Kowar, Florida’s Pitching U reputation will continue to grow.