A nifty opening baseball series

The eyes of the college baseball world will be focused on McKethan Stadium this weekend when the 23rd-ranked Florida Gators open their second season under coach Kevin O’Sullivan against eighth-ranked Louisville.

Usually, teams like to open their season with easier opponents. As the college baseball season opens today across the country, the series between the Cardinals and Gators is the only one involving teams ranked in the Top 25. So O’Sullivan and his team will have a chance to get some answers early, particularly with a pair of freshman left-handers going on Saturday and Sunday.

The opener of the three-game series is tonight at 6:30. The Cardinals will send junior left-handed pitcher Justin Marks, who was 9-2 with a 2.37 earned-run average in 2008, to the mound against Florida’s senior right-hander Patrick Keating (8-1, 4.16).

Louisville will step on the field tonight with two All-Americans on the field. Third baseman Chris Dominguez was a draft-eligible sophomore, similar to Florida’s shortstop last season, Cole Figueroa, who signed with the San Diego Padres last season. Instead, Dominguez chose to return to school despite being selected in the fifth round by the Colorado Rockies. As a sophomore in 2008, Dominguez had a .365 batting average, along with 21 home runs, 75 RBI and 68 runs scored.

Marks is the other All-American. In each of his first two seasons, Marks has posted 9-2 records, with a 2.67 ERA as a freshman and a 2.37 ERA last season when opposing batters hit just .220 against him. He will pose serious issues for the Florida lineup during their first night of the season.

A key loss for the Cardinals came in the preseason when it was announced that sophomore outfielder Stewart Ijames would have surgery on his rotator cuff. He was a Freshman All-American last season, boasting a .351 batting average, with eight home runs and 39 RBI. Ijames was considered to be the Cardinals’ second-best hitter this season, providing a solid bat behind Dominguez in the lineup. Now it looks as if sophomore outfielder Josh Richmond will take over Ijames’ role. Richmond hit .284, with six home runs and 36 RBI last season.

Senior shortstop and team co-captain John Dao returns after hitting .356 in 2008 with home runs and 31 RBIs. He was the leadoff man in the lineup last season and projects to hit in the same spot this year. Dao’s defense wasn’t as sharp last season, as he led the team with 15 errors.

Other key bats in the lineup include junior catcher Jeff Arnold (.333 batting average, 2 home runs, 32 RBIs), junior first baseman Andrew Clark (.323, 5, 44), sophomore outfielder Drew Haynes (.282, 0, 22) and sophomore designated hitter Phil Wunderlich (.265, 1, 20).

Arnold is one of the top defensive catchers in the country. Last season, he threw out 50 percent of runners who attempted to steal and also did not commit a single error in 58 games. This weekend Arnold will have to deal with a Florida lineup which has speed from top to bottom, and O’Sullivan loves to use it.

After Marks, the Louisville pitching rotation dips down. Their projected Saturday starter will be sophomore lefty Dean Kiekhefer, who missed a majority of 2008 after back surgery. He did manage 10 appearances last season, five as a starter. Kiekhefer won’t blow you away with his stuff but he does locate his pitches well.

Kiekhefer (1-1, 4.88 ERA) will be opposed by freshman left-hander Alex Panteliodis in the game which has a 1 p.m. start.

The role of Sunday’s starter was up in the air, but right-handed transfer (from Mississippi) Matt Lea is expected to get the nod. He went 5-0 with a 2.72 ERA and 31 strikeouts last season in only 36.1 innings. He made 16 appearances last season but only four of them came as a starter.

O’Sullivan will counter with a Kentuckian of his own – freshman left-hander Nick Maronde, who was 8-1 with a 0.54 ERA last season at Lexington Catholic. First pitch is at noon.

GATOR NOTES: This is Florida’s 95th collegiate season. Florida is 53-40-1 in its previous 94 season openers. … O’Sullivan’s first Florida team went 34-24, ending with four losses, two in the SEC Tournament and then two in the NCAA Sub-Regional at Florida State. … The Cardinals, coached by Dan McDonnell, went 41-21 overall and was fourth in the Big East regular-season standings at 16-11 before winning the Big East Tournament to earn an NCAA bid for the second straight year. The league coaches picked Louisville unanimously to win this year’s title. … The last freshman pitcher to start on the opening weekend for Florida was right-hander Tommy Toledo last season. … The last freshman left-hander to start for Florida was current junior Tony Davis, who pitched in the 2007 SEC Tournament, and the last freshman left-hander to start for Florida in the season-opening series was J.K. LaCoste against Cincinnati on Feb. 12, 2006. … Florida plays 12 of its first 13 games at home. An away game at Stetson on March 3 is the lone away game.  … Florida and Louisville have met just twice before, during a two-game set at Florida on March 7-8, 2000. The Cardinals won the opener 11-7 but Florida won the next day 13-12 on Aaron Sobieraj’s home run in the bottom of the 10th inning.