Fall practice begins for Gator baseball

The Florida baseball team hit the practice field Friday for the first time since a bitter end to last season. After losing only one starter to the MLB draft, the expectations are high for a solid season at McKethan Stadium.

Everybody looks forward to the first day,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got great weather and a lot of returning players we’re looking forward to getting going again. We want to build off last year. We’ve got 12 newcomers so we’re anxious to get them out there.”

The offseason workouts were more difficult because of a facelift to the field. The entire grass area was gutted and new sod installed in preparations for the season. The start date of fall practice was pushed back a few times, but the Gators were excited just to be able to practice on a real baseball field.

“We’re starting a few weeks later than last year, so the guys are anxious to get out here,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re fortunate enough to have a brand new field out here for us. Most of our work has been in the cages and bullpens. We’ve been taking ground balls on Lake Alice field, so we haven’t been on a field since we got back.”

When O’Sullivan and the Florida coaching staff weren’t working the recruiting trail hard, they were pushing their players to get ready for the 2009 season.

“We’ve worked really hard,” O’Sullivan said. “We condition in the mornings, and we’ve also done a nice job in the weight room. We’ve seen all of these newcomers a ton recruiting them, so we have a good idea about what they can do. The biggest thing right now is getting players acclimated to the way we want to play.”

There was a bad taste in the mouth of the Gators after the way the 2008 season ended. A two-and-out performance during regionals at Florida State left the Gators frustrated and wanting to work harder in the offseason. Thanks to their success during the 2008 season, there was carryover and the work ethic O’Sullivan saw bodes well for the future.

“It was important for us to have some success to build on,” O’Sullivan said. “They got a little taste of it by going to the postseason. Our goals and expectations are the same every year, and that’s get to Omaha. We want to host a regional and super regional to give our fans something to look forward to instead of going on the road.”

Florida fans grew frustrated with the pitching staff toward the end of last season. The question was never about the talent for the Gator pitchers but more about workload. By the end of the season, the Gators only had nine pitchers who were healthy enough to pitch.

“I don’t want to take anything away from last year’s team,” O’Sullivan said. “In 30 SEC games, we led the league in batting average and ERA. One of the things that got us at the end was pitching depth. The depth should definitely be better. No matter how talented these newcomers are, there is a learning curve.”

The lack of a true closer last season hurt the Gators as the season went along. It was more of a closer by committee for most of the season, as O’Sullivan went with the hot hand in a save situation. This fall one of the positions the coaches will be watching closely is for a closer to emerge.

“We’ll have a better idea as the fall goes on,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got two or three guys that we have our eyes on. We’ll make a decision as the fall goes on but there’s a plan in place.”

One of the pitchers who will be counted upon, possibly as a potential closer, is Justin Poovey. He isn’t a well known name to many Gator fans since he missed last season, his first year on campus, because of Tommy John surgery. O’Sullivan recruited Poovey to Clemson when he was the head coach there, but Poovey changed his commitment to follow O’Sullivan to become a Gator. Now the Florida staff is expecting big things during his redshirt freshman campaign.

“He’s throwing the ball really well,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got a great arm and his body is in good shape. He’s put on ten pounds and he’s lean. I’m anxious to get him out there, probably more so than he is. Yesterday in the bullpen we told him to cut it loose on the last few pitches and he hit 92 all three times with the fastball. He’s a tremendously hard worker. Nothing more would make me happy than to see him have success.”

Another pleasant surprise for the Gators was the return of Brandon McArthur. His acceptance into grad school meant he will suit up for the Gators this spring, bringing back yet another veteran to provide the team with leadership.

“You can’t put it into words,” O’Sullivan said. “The way last year happened with the injury, it’s almost like a storybook. It’s a story that we’ll tell in years to come. The leadership he lends is as good as it comes at this level. He’s not afraid to speak up. Having him, Stephen Locke, Teddy Foster, Patrick Keating, Avery Barnes all decide to come back, those are the things you need to have happen if you want to end up in Omaha. It’s not just talent. That’s part of it, but that leadership, and the older leadership, is what it takes. We like the mix between older and younger kids that we have. It makes our job easier.”

The focus of the Florida coaching staff this fall will be integrating the newcomers into the Gator program. They will play a big role in determining how far the team goes this spring, particularly since there will be added depth to the pitching staff.

“There are some expectations on them because they’re highly recruited out of high school,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve made some tough decisions about the pro draft and decided to come to school. There is a learning curve, but they fit right in. They haven’t acted like freshmen so far. They’ve been great teammates so far with no issues in the clubhouse.”