Photo by Michael Wade | Getty Images

Florida Gators baseball is back in the Men’s College World Series. It’s first appearance in Omaha since 2018 and 13th overall. They’re already in Omaha gearing up for a big first game matchup Friday night against the Virginia Cavaliers.

“We have a special group,” Head Coach Kevin O’Sullivan said about his team. “We’ve been resilient the entire year. We won the (SEC) regular season with Arkansas, which is not easy to do. And now we’re in a position to go to the World Series. Just such a great group effort, and we’re excited about the opportunity.”

The Gators have Hurston Waldrep to thank for that opportunity. If we can, let’s go back and look at the junior’s dominant super regional start.

For the second straight appearance this tournament, Waldrep turned in an elite performance. He was vital to the 4-0 win in a series-clinching Game 2 of the Gainesville Super Regional against South Carolina.

“It was the best stuff he’s had all year,” catcher BT Riopelle said. “He put his complete arsenal on display from pitch one. That kid’s going to make a lot of money, but hopefully he can make himself some more money in Omaha.”

He was in the ninth inning with 13 strikeouts on the board and no runs. Two hits and two walks to his name. He was in full control. The only thing that kept him from a complete game shutout was an eventual infield single by Braylen Wimmer.

Hours before that he threw the worst bullpen session of the season. Good thing those don’t mean anything.

Big on the breaking ball

The righty and first-round MLB prospect sliced and diced his way through the Gamecocks’ lineup for a career-high eight-plus innings. Everyone hears about the splitter but the real key Saturday was his slider. South Carolina’s Mark Kingston described Waldrep’s deliveries at 65 percent offspeed in his start.

“It changes the way my fastball plays and so I don’t have to rely heavily on my fastball,” Waldrep said. “I can use it a lot more freely later in counts, middle of counts. So, just having the slider in the back pocket, they know it’s there. They know I can land it. So it’s a gamechanger for sure.”

By my count, Waldrep threw his slider approximately 28 percent of the time against South Carolina. Most of the time it was early in the pitch count whether 0-0, 0-1 or 1-0 plus a good portion at 2-2. The only pitch with more usage than the slider was the fastball (~37 percent).

Riopelle said the effective usage of Waldrep’s slider really completes the righty’s repertoire. He said one pitch can really determine how the rest of a guy’s arsenal will play along with helping determine the right slot and release point.

“It’s shown in his last couple starts, we’ve really started to mix his slider in more as an out pitch and for a pitch for strikes, not just a curveball,” Riopelle said. Kind of reversing those, so, using them in all counts. He did a tremendous job.”

The most strikes Waldrep had in a game prior to supers this season was 66 of 112 pitches in a April 21 loss to the Gamecocks. In the rematch he threw 76 strikes and with just five more total pitches than on April 21.

That’s a 65 percent strike percentage. The only times he’s had higher was in four innings against Siena (52/77) and in five innings against Charleston Southern (55/77).

The slider accounted for 19 of them. Over half of his sliders induced a strike in the form of a whiff, a called strike, a foul or a ball in play without a single hit recorded on it.

Let’s do some math

It’s the second time this postseason where he needed to be at his best as Florida wanted to avoid a winner-take-all Game 3 scenario. Just like how he needed to bring it for Florida to stave off elimination against UConn.

His dozen strikeouts in that game plus the baker’s dozen in the super regional amounted to his second-highest strikeout total across two games this season. His highest came with 13 against Cincinnati and a career-high 14 versus Miami in his second and third starts of the season.

That’s a K/9 of 15(!!) Atlanta Braves starter Spencer Strider currently leads Major League Baseball at 14.5. Waldrep’s for the season No. 4 in the NCAA at 13.69 while LSU’s Paul Skenes leads everyone at 15.81 (Bonkers).

He posted a then-season-high game score (sabermetric designed to measure a pitcher’s performance) of 73 out of 100 facing the Huskies. For reference, 50 and a little over is considered an “average” score. Skenes in his regional start against Tulane had 77.

Against the Gamecocks? A whopping 87.

Not only that but his season fielding independent pitching (FIP) dropped from 3.81 to 3.58 from the start just like how his season earned run average went from 4.54 to 4.15. Those numbers were 4.08 and 4.83 prior to the UConn start, respectively.

FIP is used as a way of measuring a pitcher’s effectiveness by evaluating things he can control like home runs, walks, hit batters, strikeouts and innings pitched. The formula can seen below with the FIP constant being 3.6 based on SEC pitching stats.

All this to say…

He shoved. Look at whatever numbers you want but the junior Southern Miss transfer was nearly unstoppable in his eight-plus innings.

Plus he did it all in front of a strong contingent watching comprised of family, friends and even high school coaches from his hometown of Thomasville, Georgia.

“They haven’t been able to make it to many games,” Waldrep said. “So for them to be here and to play in front of them and see them: that’s awesome. After the game, they all come running down on the field and I think I hugged every single one of them a million times.”

Not to mention if the Gainesville Regional was redemption for this Florida team in 2022, then Waldrep’s outing against the Gamecocks was redemption for his last appearance in a super regional.

There will be many more eyes watching the Gators and him at Charles Schwab Field during the final act of the college baseball season whether in-person or through a screen.

If the Gators can get consistent starts from Waldrep along with Friday night man Brandon Sproat plus a bullpen that seems to have found itself then Florida should have an extended stay in its hotel in Omaha.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: