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Gators’ CWS collapse to LSU ‘a hard pill to swallow’

Florida sophomore Jac Caglianone was poised to end a record-setting, breakout season as a hero in Gainesville and national champion.

Instead, he was left to pick up the pieces along with the rest of the Gators following a demoralizing 18-4 defeat Monday night to LSU during the deciding game of the College World Seriesin Omaha, Neb.

Little went right for coach Kevin O’Sullivan and his players after Wyatt Langford’s 2-run home run in the game’s second at-bat gave UF (54-17) a fleeting advantage against the Tigers (54-17).

Yet, no one struggled like Caglianone.

College baseball’s most explosive two-way player recorded just 4 outs during a miserable day on the mound. He struck out on his three visits to the plate. The 20-year-old enters the offseason having to process a soul-crushing performance that came at the worst possible time.

O’Sullivan was at a loss to explain what he’d witnessed from a team that compiled a school-record win total yet came up one victory short.

“I don’t know,” he said. “His bullpen was really good before the game. I thought our team was in a really good place. I thought BP [batting practice] was good.

“They were loose.”

Holding a 2-1 lead after one inning, Caglianone succumbed to season-long command issues during a second-inning meltdown.

When the dust settled, he’d allowed 6 earned runs, walked 3, hit 2 and threw a wild pitch to leave the Gators trailing 6-2.

“After his first I thought he was going to be dialed in,” O’Sullivan said. “Don’t really have an answer other than we lost control of the strike zone.”

Florida’s starting pitchers were consistently off the mark on the game’s biggest stage.

Brandon Sproat, Hurtson Waldrep and Caglianone lasted just 7 2/3 of 23 innings during the best-of-three championship series, yielding 12 hits, 11 earned runs and 14 walks while striking out 11 and hitting 5 batters.

O’Sullivan turned to his bullpen early and often. Options were therefore limited when Caglianone imploded.

“When you start using the same pitchers in multiple games in the same weekend, a three-game series, you kind of get exposed a little bit,” O’Sullivan said. “We probably flirted with a little bit of fire with that. Knowing that today, if that did happen where Jac kind of lost control of the strike zone and we had to go to the pen early, that was probably not going to be in our best interests.”

An offensively gifted squad capable of a comeback also struggled at the plate.

Besides Caglanone’s 3 Ks, Josh Rivera, BT Riopelle and Luke Heyman — the team’s Nos. 4-5-6 hitters — finished 0-for-12.

“It just wasn’t our day,” said Riopelle, who hit 6 home runs during 16 postseason games.

Caglianone had 5 homers himself, but 4 of them in two outings. Overall, he managed just 14 hits in 65 trips to the plate — an average of .215 after batting .350 during the regular season.

Yet, Caglianone seemed to finally find his groove during Sunday’s 24-4 rout of the Tigers. He hit 2 of UF’s 6 home runs to extend his school record to 33 and totaled 5 RBI for a Gators single-season record 90.

On Monday, O’Sullivan put the Gators’ season in the hands of a player whose slugging prowess and high 90s fastball have drawn comparisons to MLB star Shohei Ohtani.

Caglianone’s ensuing struggle leaves much offseason work ahead to develop consistency on the mound. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Tampa native was recruited as a pitcher, is still less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery and aims to remain a two-way player beyond his college career.

With Waldrep and Sproat bound for July’s MLB Draft, the Gators expect Caglianone to remain among their three-starter rotation in 2024. Promising freshman Cade Fisher, All-SEC closer Brandon Neely and UCLA transfer Kelly Austin presumably will vie for two spots.

With Langford, Rivera and Riopelle also moving on, Caglianone will anchor the Gators’ lineup along with Heyman, leadoff hitter Cade Kurland and Alabama freshman All-America infielder Colby Shelton, a recent transfer who hit 25 home runs in 2023.

“They’re going to be just as talented, if not more talented than we were this year,” Rivera said.

The returning Gators also will have a template to follow veterans on the 2023 squad did not.

Florida’s CWS appearance was its first since 2018, the last in a run of seven trips in nine years to Omaha.

“When I first got here, the program wasn’t talked about very highly,” Riopelle said. “It was in a bad place.”

Despite Monday’s gut punch, O’Sullivan is keeping an eye on the big picture and he expects a bright future.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow right now,” he said. “But glad we had an opportunity to come back, play for a national championship. And I would expect us to be in the same spot next year.”

©2023 Orlando Sentinel. Visit orlandosentinel.com . Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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