Updated: Feb 18
Editor's note: This article has been updated to include recent information on Miami's starting rotation.
Nothing brings out the passion and emotion of college baseball like an in-state rivalry, especially one on opening weekend.
Played every year since 1965 (even including the shortened 2020 season), the upcoming duel between Florida and Miami (FL) is set for February 19-21. This in-state rivalry series promises to be a must-see matchup.
Entering the season, Florida is ranked number one in College Baseball Nation’s Preseason Top 50 and figures to be the leading candidate to win the SEC title.
Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan recently said, “I think our expectations are the same every year. That’s to get back to Omaha and put ourselves into position to win a national championship, SEC Championship. That’s our goal every year.”
Miami also heads into this season with big expectations, ranked No. 22 by College Baseball Nation. The Hurricanes finished 2020 with a 12-4 record, ranked eighth in College Baseball Nation’s rankings. Though Miami lost its weekend rotation from a year ago, several young standouts have stepped into leadership roles, including Junior LHP Spencer Bodanza, who was named the pitching MVP at Miami’s Fall World Series.
DiMare has high expectations for several of his hurlers, including junior Daniel Federman, Bodanza, Alex McFarland and Jake Garland. However, starting pitching is the big question mark for Miami, as the head coach noted in a recent press conference that the weekend rotation would be a work in progress.
“It’s a number of guys,” said DiMare. “I think we got eight guys, which is the most we’ve ever had, competing for four spots. Federman certainly would be a leading candidate because he’s a veteran guy and has done a little bit of everything. He’s going to be a starter this year.
“I think the other guys in terms of returning guys that are high on the list would be Alex McFarland and Jake Garland,” continued DiMare. “Of course you have some new guys that have come in. Transfer guys like Jake Smith and Jordan Dubberly and some freshmen like Alejandro Rosario, Victor Mederos. They are all competing for four spots. I think probably on the outside looking in, that’s going to be the biggest question mark for our team.”
DiMare recently shared that the starting rotation will be comprised of Federman, Rosario, and Mederos.
With that “question mark” surrounding the pitching staff early in this season, DiMare will be forced to rely on his hitters to guide Miami against a very good Florida team, especially considering eight of the lineup’s nine starters are back this spring.
DiMare has reason to be confident in what his position players bring to the plate, as the entire starting lineup, with the exception of shortstop Freddy Zamora, has returned. One particular player that can improve the Hurricanes chances of winning the series with his bat is sophomore catcher Adrian Del Castillo. With a quick compact swing, he will be a challenge for Florida’s pitching staff, especially considering he found success against the Gators in last season’s three game series, going four-for-nine at the plate.
Speaking of Florida’s pitching staff, the Gators boast one of the best weekend rotations in the country with the one-two punch of Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich. Always reliable on the mound, Mace went 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA in the spring, while Leftwich was just as solid, throwing six innings in a 7-4 victory over then-No. 1 Miami, allowing just four hits and a run.
The Friday night duel on the mound is certain to be the difference in game one as Mace will take the ball for Florida. He has a tendency to throw a high number of pitches in the zone, and generate quick outs with precise ball placement. With DiMare unsure of his starting rotation, it is hard to make a prediction as to who will start the first game of the series for the Canes, though Federman seems like a strong possibility, due to his recent experience and surefire status as a starter this season, according to DiMare.
While Florida will have the best chance to win this series behind its starters, Miami’s strengths are in the bullpen, where there is more experience. RHP Ben Wanger, who looks to play both ways as a DH, transferred in from Southern California, where he tallied an impressive three saves and an ERA of 0.00 in 2020. As a graduate transfer he is likely to be the Canes’ go-to closer, and will likely see plenty of action against Florida.
The Miami pitching staff will have perhaps its toughest non-conference test of the season, as the Gators are led offensively by outfielder Jud Fabian, who was named a College Baseball Nation’s Preseason All-American. With superb bat speed, he will likely be the difference maker in Florida’s ability to score.
Playing against then-number one Miami, Florida went on the road and swept the Hurricanes a year ago. This year, the roles are reversed as Florida will be the top-ranked team hosting the underdog Hurricanes. Miami has years of history to overcome as the Hurricanes have lost 14 of their last 18 games against the Gators and haven’t won a series since 2014.
Riley Zayas’ (@ZayasRiley) Prediction: This has all the makings of a closely-contested three-game set, but I would lean towards Florida’s starting pitching being the difference. The Gators have a clear advantage on the mound, and so often, especially early in the season, the way a team starts sets the tone for the rest of the game. With Florida bringing back the entire weekend rotation from last spring, the Gators have to feel pretty good about their chances to begin the season with a series victory.