The opening weekend of the 2021 baseball season was special. Not only was it 10 months since the Gators had their 2020 season canceled by COVID 19 after a 16-1 start but they were opening up a brand new $65 million dollar ballpark and the Miami Hurricanes were in town.
Excitement was high and tension was even higher but Florida built and carried a 7-0 lead into the ninth inning. Kevin O’Sullivan turned took Christian Scott out of the game in favor of freshman Chase Centala, who gave up a single and walked two before getting the hook. Ben Specht took over but allowed all three of his inherited runners to score and was replaced by Franco Alemán.
Alemán came to Florida via St. John’s River State College, where he transferred to after one year at Florida International University. The Tampa native was juiced up for his first appearance in Orange and Blue, lighting up the radar gun with an easy 96 MPH fastball. He allowed one run to score (credited to Specht) but needed just six pitches to close the game and Alemán was called upon again on Saturday night but the result wasn’t the same.
Alemán entered the bottom of the eighth with a runner on first, no outs, and Florida leading 8-4. A wild pitch and a walk gave Miami two runners on. Alemán got out of the inning, allowing one unearned run. Alemán looked strained on the mound. He was tight, tense, grunting with every pitch he threw seemingly trying to throw the ball through the brick backstop.
The ninth inning was a disaster.
Alemán walked the first two batters before a groundout gave Miami two runners in scoring position before another walk loaded the bases. A foul out and two more walks tied the game before Kevin O’Sullivan begrudgingly came out to get his pitcher.
The game was blown, Miami would go on to win that night and take the momentum into Sunday to take the series but O’Sullivan was steadfast in his support of Alemán.
“Pulling him, that’s not sending the right message to him,” O’Sullivan said when asked why he left Alemán in the game. “He’s got to be the guy, probably, at the end of the game for us. Today was just not his day. Simple as that.”
Alemán’s next appearance was worse. He gave up three runs, all earned, walking two more while getting just one out against Samford. Worse yet, it seems that Alemán had overcorrected from his previous start. It was good that he wasn’t tight and overthrowing every pitch, but now he was on the mound aiming, trying to be too fine around the edges. It was clear he was in his own head.
O’Sullivan had planned for Alemán to be his closer. The 6-6 frame and fastball that can tickle 99 is the prototypical end of the game bullpen. Eight games into the season it wasn’t only looking like that wouldn’t happen but that we might have seen the last of Alemán altogether. That would have appeased fans on social media and message boards.
O’Sullivan stuck by Alemán.
“It’s not physical. I think it was a mental thing,” O’Sullivan said. “I think he was trying to overthink things a little bit. I think just showing him trust and I kept running him back out there. I think that’s the best way you can give trust to a player, give them confidence, is to continue to stay with them even though they might not be pitching or playing at the level they want to.”
They moved Franco out of a closer role but kept running him out there to build confidence in him. Even as some fans’ confidence in O’Sullivan averted every time No. 35 ran out of the bullpen, O’Sullivan’s confidence in his guy never wavered.
You just keep running them out there and running them out there and eventually they’re going to figure it out. That was the mindset that O’Sullivan had. So even while Alemán’s ERA ballooned to 20.25 after that Samford game, Sully stuck by him. Alemán pitched in the very next game against FAU, then twice that weekend against FAMU, and against Stetson.
It’s starting to click now.
In Alemán’s last four outings he’s thrown 7.2 innings, allowing just two earned runs, and has struck out 10. It took some time but the last two weeks have shown what O’Sullivan saw in the fall and spring to trust the flame-throwing righty.
“When your head coach trusts you, that’s huge,” Alemán said after the game. “That means I have to work my butt off to be able to back him up. If he trusts me its for a reason and I have to keep proving that to him.”
His last outing was his best.
Alemán was brought out of the bullpen to receive starter Hunter Barco with the bases loaded and no outs in a 6-2 game. Barco had been phenomenal until running out of gas in the seventh and Sully turned to Alemán to save the game and preserve the sweep.
A groan could be heard at Florida Ballpark when a passed ball scored a run to make it 6-3 but Alemán struck out the next three batters he faced. The radar gun flashed 95-96 consistently but Alemán was loose, he wasn’t overthrowing or aiming. He was back out there having fun.
Florida’s bullpen was set to be the best in the country before the season before losing Nick Pogue and Tyler Nesbitt for the season to Tony John surgery. Ryan Cabarcas and Ben Specht have been on the shelf for extending periods of time at points this season, which makes every pitcher in the bullpen all the more important.
With the SEC schedule really getting underway right now, Alemán and the rest of the bullpen are going to be even more crucial for Florida the rest of the way, and Alemán’s already faced a season’s worth of adversity in the first five weeks of 2021.
“When you face adversity there’s two ways you can take it,” he said. “You can either keep getting punched or say ‘I’m done’ and react to it.”
It’s clear which route Alemán has chosen.