Tigers' 1st-rounder leads Florida to title game

June 25th, 2017
Alex Faedo, the Tigers' first-round Draft pick at No. 18 overall, struck out 11 to lead Florida to the College World Series finals. (AP)

OMAHA, Neb. -- Florida never has won the College World Series. It also never has had a pitcher dominate a NCAA postseason like Alex Faedo has this June.

After striking out 11 over seven innings in a 3-0 victory over Texas Christian last Sunday, Faedo blanked the Horned Frogs for 7 1/3 innings and again fanned 11 in another 3-0 win on Saturday night. Junior designated hitter Christian Hicks sparked the offense with a double and a triple, scoring one run and driving in another.

The No. 3 seed Gators (50-19) advanced to the best-of-three finals against No. 4 Louisiana State, a series which begins Monday at 6 p.m. CT. The Tigers eliminated No. 1 seed Oregon State with a 6-1 win earlier on Saturday, thanks to the best pitching performance of sophomore right-hander Caleb Gilbert's career and two home runs from junior catcher Mike Papierski (the Astros' ninth-round pick).

It's an all-Southeastern Conference finals, the first championship series featuring conference rivals since South Carolina swept Florida in 2011. Florida beat LSU twice in three games in Gainesville, Fla., in late March.

Faedo is the main reason Florida will get the chance to win its first CWS. The junior right-hander, drafted 18th overall in the first round by the Tigers 12 days ago, allowed just two TCU hitters to reach scoring position. He sat at 92-94 mph and recorded seven strikeouts with his fastball, while his trademark nasty slider resided at 83-85 mph and notched four whiffs.

"Alex Faedo just got in the way," Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "In 2010, our first time here, the exact same thing happened, and it was and . Now we watch those guys pitch in the big leagues. I took my daughter to the World Series last year, and Trevor Bauer was pitching. I'm sure there'll be a day when I pay a pretty penny to watch Faedo in the big leagues.

"That one guy on the mound can just change everything in this sport. And he did that."

Faedo boosted his season strikeout total to 157 in 123 2/3 innings, eclipsing Rob Bonanno's school record (148 in 1994) and passing LSU's Alex Lange (a Cubs first-rounder) for the NCAA Division I lead. In five NCAA tournament appearances, he is 2-0 with one save, a 0.33 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings. He conceivably could win CWS Most Outstanding Player honors without pitching in the championship series, and Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said he was leaning toward not bringing Faedo back on short rest.

Faedo also started an elimination game at the 2016 CWS, pitching well and making just one mistake -- a two-run homer by Texas Tech's Eric Gutierrez that was the difference in the game. He said he used that loss as motivation against TCU.

"Throughout the day, I just tried to think back to my start last year when I was kind of in the same situation," Faedo said. "And it all came down to one pitch. And that's what I tried to bring to the game this year. I just can't make that pitch again that lost the game last year."

Faedo didn't. Twice the Horned Frogs got two runners on with two out, and both times he ended the threats with strikeouts. He looked very much like the pitcher who was the best starter on a loaded 2016 Gators staff that could produce as many as five first-rounders, and the guy who entered 2017 as a potential No. 1 overall pick.

But after having arthroscopic surgery on both knees last September, Faedo saw his fastball velocity drop at times early in the season. Though his performance never suffered, his draft stock did, which baffles O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan thinks the velocity concerns were overblown and says Faedo has the best slider of any pitcher he's ever coached -- which includes A.J. Puk, the sixth overall pick in the 2016 Draft who might have the best slider in the Minor Leagues right now.

"I've said it several times: The Tigers got a steal at 18," O'Sullivan said. "I couldn't believe some of the guys who got picked ahead of him. His average velocity has been 93.5 mph. His velocity was just down for two or three starts. I really think it's case of a guy just getting picked apart too much."