College World Series: Sweet Ending for Florida Juniors

OMAHA—Florida catcher Mike Rivera remembers looking around the clubhouse at TD Ameritrade Park in 2015 and seeing the faces of soon-to-be pro ballers in every corner. Richie Martin. Buddy Reed. A.J. Puk. Logan Shore. Harrison Bader. Josh Tobias. Peter Alonso. Dane Dunning.

“On paper,” Rivera says now, “we were the most beautiful team to ever exist.”

The most important and most painful lesson Rivera learned that year, his freshman season, is that the most beautiful team rarely wins it all. The Gators fell short, losing to eventual champion Virginia in the final four. The next year, with many of those same faces crowding the locker room, with the expectations just as high—if not higher—the Gators left Omaha, 0-2.

This year?

“This year, everybody just bashed us,” Rivera said. “Talking about how bad we were at the beginning and talking about how we weren’t going to get to a regional, and I was like, ‘OK, keep talking.’”

They didn’t have a bullpen. They couldn’t hit. They had no depth. That’s what Rivera and his teammates kept hearing. But they didn’t listen.

That doubt, criticism, scrutiny, whatever you want to call it, made Tuesday night all the sweeter—that moment when Rivera found himself on the very bottom of a dogpile.

A dogpile of national champions.

For the second straight game, Florida found just enough to put away Louisiana State, winning 6-1, and bringing the first-ever CWS title back to Gainesville. And with that trophy came yet another lesson for Rivera and the Gators: what’s on paper is irrelevant. Omaha will shred it to bits, anyway.

“Now people will understand it’s not just all about hitting,” Rivera said. “It’s all about the group thing. It’s not about stats; no one cares when you get here. You can have 20 home runs. It doesn’t matter.”

Rivera, who hit just .238/.346/.358 this year, remembers the sheer frustration he felt at the plate, battling through a broken hamate bone in his wrist. At one point this season, he got into a yelling match with his father on the phone, telling him, “I forgot how to hit! I can’t hit!” His father yelled back, “You stand there with your bat on your shoulder and if you get out, you say, ‘I tried my best.’”

Rivera couldn’t stop laughing. He shared that message with the rest of his team, saying if anyone ever got yelled at or couldn’t get a bunt down or popped up, just say, “I tried my best.” It became a mantra. A punch-line. Florida hit a paltry .259/.355/.378 as a team, had just one player even sniff .300, yet the Gators very well might’ve led the country in trying their best.

The prime example—and the lightning rod of all lightning rods in college baseball—has been J.J. Schwarz.

Schwarz was one of those faces on that 2015 team that made Rivera think, ‘Wow, this is a team of all-stars.’ Schwarz led the team with 18 home runs and 73 RBI that year as a freshman and looked like another no-doubt, slam-dunk first-rounder in the making.

But over the last two years, Schwarz hasn’t come close to replicating that level of success. He batted .259/.351/.444 with 12 homers this year and saw his draft stock slide as far as it could possibly go. Some said Schwarz was undraftable. That wasn’t quite true. He did get drafted—but in the 38th round, out of 40, by the Rays.

“I mean, there was a ton of scrutiny about me,” Schwarz said. “And I try my best not to listen to it. I don’t have Twitter. I don’t read any tweet about me. But at the same time, I did hear it. And it’s going to be my goal to prove everybody wrong in the long run. It’s just more fuel to the fire. They can say whatever they want about me, but I define who I am. Not them.

“Now, I can say I’m a national champion.”

Even more, Schwarz played a crucial role in securing that national championship. No, he hasn’t been the consistent offensive force evaluators might’ve been expecting two years ago—but he produced in opportune moments on Tuesday, both at the start and at the finish.

In the first inning, stepping up to the plate with a 2-for-19 mark in Omaha, Schwarz lined a single to left field to drive in Florida’s first run of the game, giving freshman righthander Tyler Dyson an early cushion.

In the eighth inning, Schwarz helped protect it.

With Tigers runners on the corners and one out, and with the Florida lead a slim 2-1, Schwarz fielded a grounder from LSU’s Greg Deichmann and fired home, cutting down speedy Kramer Robertson at the plate.

“He bounced off aggressively, and he threw the ball on the right side of the bag,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Made a perfect throw. Quick feet. Probably saved the game, to be honest with you. That play probably saved us the game.”

Schwarz said he heard his teammates yelling from the dugout that he needed to throw home—to prevent the tying run from crossing the plate.

“And knowing Kramer, I knew he was going to be aggressive and try to go,” Schwarz said. “So I had to make a good throw, and Mike made an unbelievable tag.”

It’s fitting that Schwarz and Rivera connected on the game’s most important play. The two have known each other since high school, went through the USA Baseball ranks together, and they’ve shared similar frustrations at the plate. They’ve had to carry the mantle and try to meet the lofty expectations of the star-studded Florida teams of old. And that hasn’t been easy.

Rivera, whose defense carried him to the sixth round in the draft, said he was particularly bothered by the flack Schwarz has drawn.

“I don’t know how people can just talk about stuff like that and get away thinking it’s OK,” Rivera said. “What they don’t understand is how much that guy works and how much that guy battles through all these things.

“He’s human.”

That’s the part Rivera has learned to appreciate more, the part that the inflated stats of the 2015 and 2016 Florida teams didn’t account for—the humanity of it all. The heart in it. Schwarz, emblematic of the Florida offense as a whole, never quite played to his talent level in 2017.

It didn’t matter.

Like Rivera and the rest of the Gators, he showcased his mettle when it was needed most—and did so on college baseball’s grandest stage. When Florida tacked on four more runs in the bottom of the eighth, Schwarz drove in the final nail with a sacrifice fly. When second baseman Deacon Liput fielded the game’s last groundout, it was Schwarz’s first baseman’s mitt that closed around the ball and initiated the dogpile.

And when the Gators gathered on the stage in front of home plate for the post-game celebration, it was Schwarz who held the national championship trophy in his hands first.

“It’s way heavier than it looks,” Schwarz said of the trophy, laughing.

Thankfully, he had the rest of his teammates to help him hold it up.