BASEBALL: Pitching is strength for UF

Kevin O’Sullivan’s goal when he took over as the University of Florida’s baseball coach two and a half years ago was to bolster a pitching staff in desperate need of help. When his team took the field to begin practice for the spring campaign Friday afternoon, pitching was no longer the weakness of the team but its strength. O’Sullivan has such an abundance of capable arms that pitching will be the team’s identity in 2010.

“When we first got here, our goal was to deepen the pitching staff,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s not done overnight. It takes more than one recruiting class. We feel good about where we’re at right now. We’ve got to stay healthy, but I do like our versatility. We’ve got five total left-handers on the roster. Two or three will start and we’ve got a couple in the pen. We’ve just got a few more pitchers that can help us out.”

The depth of the Florida pitching staff is rooted in a sophomore class that boasts four of the top pitchers on the team. Redshirt sophomore Tommy Toledo joins true sophomores Anthony DeSclafani (6-3, 4.98), Nick Maronde (3-1, 4.40) and Alex Panteliodis (6-5, 4.38) and three of these four should form the weekend rotation. Maronde is currently listed as a starting pitcher, but the possibility of using him as the team’s closer seems pretty strong at the moment.

Toledo will probably be given every opportunity to win the Friday night starter’s job but since he is coming off surgery for a torn labrum, there is plenty to prove. Until he proves his shoulder is completely healthy, the job will remain wide open at least through preseason practice.

“Time will tell,” O’Sullivan said. “You really don’t know until the games, but we’re counting on them to be better. They had good freshman years, but we’re going to need for them to make another jump. We’re going to lean on them an awful lot. They’ve got a lot to prove. Like I told them, we’re awful proud of what they were able to accomplish last year, but I don’t see anybody with double digit wins or an ERA under four. They’ve got a lot to prove.”

The uncertainty around Toledo’s rehabilitation is precautionary at the moment. He has responded favorably to every step along the rehab path and there is hope that he can return to being a dominant pitcher. He checked out well while throwing bullpen sessions during January and will be kept under a microscope during scrimmages in the three weeks before the Gators open the season.

“We’ll take him along carefully and won’t rush into things,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ll be extra conscience of his pitch count. We’ll build his pitch count up from each outing. It all depends on how his arm rebounds. I’m hoping [to have him on opening night]. I’m optimistic and I know he is, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on him. It’s a marathon. For us to get to where we want to get to, we want him to be good at the end of the year and as much as 100 percent at the beginning of the year.”

The ample supply of pitching overshadows one of the best groups of outfielders in the country, led by center fielder Matt den Dekker (.296, 5, 37).  The Pittsburgh Pirates selected him in the 16th round of the MLB Draft, but after he was projected in the top five rounds before last season, he decided to come back to school and boost his stock.

The Florida infield returns the consistency of Preston Tucker (.364, 15, 85) to first base and Josh Adams (.342, 8, 52) to second base. On the left side of the infield, it’s a completely different story.

Freshman shortstop Nolan Fontana brings a consistent glove to the position and a bat that could find itself in the leadoff spot in the batting order.

Third baseman Bryson Smith, a Young Harris College transfer who was the National JUCO Player of the Year because of his offensive statistics (.467, 21, 90), needed work on his defense when he arrived on campus. He worked hard to improve during the offseason but an injured left wrist slowed his progress. O’Sullivan trusts Smith enough that he believes his new left side of the infield will solidify his team.

“We’ve got very capable guys at short and third,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m very comfortable with it. They’re tough. Bryson Smith had a tremendous amount of success last year and he got drafted but decided to come to school. He’s very much improved defensively and a steady type of player. I hate to coin him as a clutch-type guy, but he’s got that mentality. He goes about his work every day the same way. He’s a junior too, so he’s been around the block.

“At shortstop, we’ve got a guy who played International Baseball and for Team USA in Nolan Fontana. You recruit good players and they’ve got to be ready to go. Even though it’s new, I feel really good about the left side of our infield.”

Behind the plate, the Gators boast a group that Coach O’Sullivan calls “as good as anybody’s in the country.” But there won’t be any initial decisions made about the playing time. Instead, he will leave it up to the players. Sophomore Ben McMahan (.100, 1, 2) put together a great summer in the Cape Cod League and is primed to take advantage of his increased playing time this year. Stud freshman Austin Maddox and Michael Zunino will see immediate playing time as well. Maddox has elite power with his bat and Zunino isn’t far behind. Senior catcher Hampton Tignor (.213, 0, 2) also returns for his final year.

The consistent and most well known piece of the Florida lineup is Tucker. He is a preseason first team All-American after setting the school RBI record last season as a freshman. Tucker might be doing it in a different setting this year, however. After earning his way into the lineup because of improved defense at first base, Tucker could see some action in the outfield this year, allowing O’Sullivan to play catchers McMahan, Maddox and Zunino in the lineup at the same time. One would catch, one would be the designated hitter and one would play first base.

“He [Tucker] played outfield in high school and he tracks [the ball] well,” O’Sullivan said. “If we were to do that, we’d probably put him in right so he stays on the same side of the field. He is a much better athlete than you’d think. He’s not just a first baseman only. He runs fairly well for his size and if we were to be able to put him in the outfield, it gives us another bat to put in the lineup.”

The struggle for Tucker will be to maintain the same consistency with his bat this year. Given his gaudy freshman stats it’s unlikely he will see nearly as many hittable pitches this year. He’s not a freshman anymore so he won’t be sneaking up on opposing teams.

Tucker will hit third and after that, all the other spots in the batting order seem up for grabs. It’s going to be a real task for O’Sullivan to find the perfect combination of hitters in front of and behind Tuckter. Those in front of him need to get on base and those behind him need to have the ability to hit the ball out of the park.

“He’s going to be pitched to differently this year,” O’Sullivan said. “Everybody talks about the guys behind him for protection, but we’ve been emphasizing the guys in front of him having to get on base. If they get on base, then obviously Preston is going to have a heck of a year. He’s a guy we’ll be counting on in that number three spot in the lineup. He’s had as good a freshman year as I’ve ever seen.”

With other hitters, the tendency to fear they would swing at pitches out of the strike zone is only natural. Some hitters get frustrated and try too hard to make something happen by swinging at breaking balls in the dirt and fastballs at their eyes.

For Tucker, that’s not a worry. He struck out once every eleven at-bats, an absurd stat for a power hitter.

“They’ll pitch him tougher,” O’Sullivan said. “The thing about Preston is he’s got a good eye at the plate and he doesn’t swing at a lot of pitches out of the zone. He’s somewhat of a bad-ball hitter. The barrel just finds the ball. The ball is in, out, up, down, 83 (mph), 93, breaking balls, he just seems to square balls up.”