GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Running out of motivational speeches during a monumentally frustrating year, Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan veered outside his comfort zone earlier this month.

He didn’t want to single out any player. He didn’t want to make it about anything other than the team. But he also didn’t feel as if he had much choice with the season on the line.

So O’Sullivan candidly told his players that two-way star Jac Caglianone deserved better.

“I was like, ‘It would be an absolute shame if we don’t get to the postseason with the performance Jac’s had this year,’” O’Sullivan told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “No one player is bigger than the program, no one coach; we’re all in this thing together.

“But I honestly felt that way toward the latter part of the year. I’m like, ‘This just cannot happen. Jac’s got to have the opportunity to play in the postseason one last time before he moves on.’ I was just honest with the players.”

The Gators (28-27), a year removed from losing to LSU in the NCAA championship series, responded with just enough of a late-season push to sneak into the 64-team field.

Florida went 5-6 down the stretch in May, including two wins at then-No. 9 Georgia that helped the program extend its streak of consecutive NCAA tournaments to 16.

It also meant Jeffrey Alan Caglianone, better known as “Jac” or “Cags” and playfully nicknamed “Jactani” as an ode to MLB sensation Shohei Ohtani, would get a chance to end his college career on the postseason stage.

Florida, the No. 3 seed in the Stillwater Regional, begins play against second-seeded Nebraska (39-20) on Friday. Caglianone will start the opener in his usual spot at first base and will pitch Saturday against either host Oklahoma State or Niagara.

“The fact of the matter is we wouldn’t even be where we’re at right now without him,” O’Sullivan said. “The year that he’s had, with everything that’s been thrown at him, we owed it to him. I felt strongly about it.

“For him not to have this opportunity this weekend, it would have been disappointing for sure.”

Caglianone, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior from Tampa, is widely regarded as a top-five pick heading into the Major League Baseball draft in July. He ranks sixth nationally with a .415 batting average and is fourth with 29 home runs, including tying the Division I record in April with a homer in nine consecutive games.

He hit an estimated 516-footer in one game and added another a few weeks later with a lunging, opposite-field shot. His on-base (.525) and slugging (.844) percentages rank 11th and sixth, respectively. Equally stout: he’s been walked 41 times against just 21 strikeouts.

Arkansas intentionally walked him four times in one game, and Kentucky intentionally walked him to load the bases in another.

“Just bad baseball,” Caglianone quipped.

Everyone realizes Cags has been close to a one-man show in Gainesville, with the rest of the team hitting .254 and now playing without starting outfielders Hayden Yost (knee) and Ty Evans (wrist).

On the mound, he’s 5-1 with a 4.35 ERA — finding the strike zone with way more regularity — while spending most of the season as the team’s Sunday starter in an effort to keep him as fresh as possible in other games.

“I feel a heap of a lot more confident on the mound out there for sure,” said Caglianone, who is more than two years removed from Tommy John surgery. “The bat, I felt like kind of always had that in me.”

The most impressive part of Caglianone’s season has been that it happened amid sky-high expectations following last year’s breakout campaign. He hit .323 as a sophomore, with a nation-leading 33 homers and a school-record 90 RBIs. He drew 17 walks and struck out 58 times.

“Every time you go on social media, there’s a new T-shirt with Jac on it,” O’Sullivan said, adding several stories about fans in visiting ballparks begging for Cags’ autograph before, during and after games. “The amount of attention he gets, it’s got to be hard for him. But he’s learned how to be a pro.”

It’s unclear how long Caglianone will continue being a two-way player. It probably will depend on who drafts him and what that team needs moving forward.

“You’d be crazy not to at least entertain it,” O’Sullivan said. “Maybe it lasts a year, maybe it lasts three or four years. I think the biggest question is if you want to do that, do you have him as a starter or a reliever?

“The bat’s just so special. He’s got a chance to hit 40 home runs a year for however many years he plays in the big leagues.”


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