SEC rivals LSU, Florida set to square off in College World Series finals
Published 4:11 pm Friday, June 23, 2023
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — LSU coach Jay Johnson remembered scanning the 64-team NCAA Tournament field when it was announced almost a month ago, and he had a premonition Florida would be the opponent if his team reached the College World Series finals.
“You look at the bracket and you look on the other side, it’s like, yeah, this is not a surprise to me who we’re playing,” he said.
Considering the Gators are the No. 2 national seed, it was a safe assumption. The way college baseball has trended for three decades, picking almost any Southeastern Conference team to make the finals is never a bad guess.
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With LSU and Florida playing in the best-of-three championship series opening Saturday night, the SEC is assured of winning its fourth straight national title — by four different teams. Fifteen of the last 33 champions will have come from the SEC, including nine of the last 14.
Fourteen of the last 15 finals, in fact, will have included at least one SEC team.
“We’re the best conference in baseball and I believe that all the way,” Florida’s Wyatt Langford said. “The matchup with them makes sense for all the fans and everyone who knows baseball.”
Florida (53-15) is only the fourth team since 1976 to win three straight one-run games in bracket play to make the finals.
LSU (52-16), the No. 5 national seed, lost its second game and had to stave off elimination three times to set up a rematch of the 2017 finals, which the Gators won for their first, and only, national title in baseball.
LSU is playing for its seventh national championship, which would rank second to Southern California’s 12. The Tigers’ most recent title was in 2009.
The Tigers and Gators didn’t face each other in the regular season, and they didn’t run into each other in the SEC Tournament. This will be their first meeting since LSU won two of three in Gainesville, Florida, in March 2022. LSU leads the all-time series 66-52-1.
“The reality of it when you look at the SEC West and SEC East, you cannot win without age, experience and all those types of things,” Johnson said. “It’s not a little boy’s league.”
Florida’s pitching is lined up with starters Brandon Sproat (8-3) and Hurston Waldrep (10-3) for Games 1 and 2 and Jac Caglianone (7-3) if the series goes to a third. Waldrep is a transfer from Southern Miss.
Johnson didn’t announce his pitching plans. Ty Floyd (7-0) would be next in line after ace Paul Skenes started the Tigers’ 2-0, 11-inning win over No. 1 Wake Forest on Thursday.
Floyd allowed two runs and struck out 10 in five innings on Monday, when the Tigers lost 3-2 to Wake Forest.
From there, Johnson might have to take a committee approach. Left-hander Nate Ackenhausen (2-0) threw six shutout innings in his first-ever start for LSU in Wednesday’s 5-2 win over Wake Forest. Skenes (12-2) would have only three days’ rest if he were brought back for a Game 3.
LSU’s pitching staff allowed two runs in 27 innings and threw two shutouts in its three elimination games in Omaha.
Florida has won eight straight games since losing to Texas Tech in the regionals and has been off since Wednesday. LSU will be playing its fifth game in six days Saturday and would play eight in nine days if the finals go the limit.
“Honestly, from my standpoint, it puts me a little bit on edge,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said, “because what you don’t want your players to do, with off days, is lose their edge. There have been plenty of teams who played that Thursday game and went on to win this last series.”
Ten of the last 16 champions played the second bracket final and faced a finals opponent that went 3-0 through its side.
The finals won’t be lacking star power. LSU’s Dylan Crews and Skenes and Florida’s Langford are projected to go 1-2-3 in the amateur draft next month, according to MLB.com.
Waldrep is expected to be taken in the middle of the first round and five other players in the finals should go in the top five rounds.
Analysts say Skenes could be pitching in the major leagues, possibly in a relief role, by late in the season and Crews and Langford also could be fast-tracked.
LSU’s Tommy White, who hit the game-winning home run against Wake Forest on Thursday, and Caglianone, the national home run co-leader in addition to being the Gators’ No. 3 starter, are among the top 10 prospects for the 2024 draft.
“College baseball, it’s never been better from a talent standpoint,” O’Sullivan said.
CWS CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
Florida vs. LSU
Game 1 – Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN
Game 2 – Sunday, 2 p.m., ESPN
Game 3 – Monday, 6 p.m., ESPN (if necessary)