Florida Gators must balance high expectations in 2016

Coach Kevin O’Sullivan is excited and he has good reason to be. The Florida Gators baseball team was a unanimous No. 1 selection by every major pre-season ranking outlet and they return a talented nucleus of veterans to compliment an influx of talented freshmen.

The Gators have it all, speed, power, defense, the experience of making a trip to Omaha last season and, of yeah, probably the best pitching staff in the country. Leading the way is sophomore pitcher A.J. Puk, ranked as the No. 1 overall draft eligible college prospect by Perfect Game and D1Baseball.com and Friday night starter Logan Shore.

Shore and Puk led the pitching staff all the way to Omaha last year, but after two years in Gainesville and a Summer spent with Team USA (also joined by OF Buddy Reed and C/DH JJ Schwarz) they have more on their plate than ever before.

“I’m just out here trying to have fun and enjoy my last year,” Shore slipped before catching himself. “Hopefully, potentially my last year with my best friends.”

The pressure at Florida never changes. Every year the goal is to win the SEC and make it to Omaha but the players that led the Gators last year have the MLB Draft looming and every at bat, every pitch can change the course of their draft projections.

“It’s kinda the elephant in the room. It’s kinda the thing that everybody knows is there and knows is gonna come but we try just to focus on what we need to take care of on the field,” Shore said. “Amongst us draft eligible guys it is a conversation once and a while but I think the more we focus on winning a national championship and winning games day in and day out, I think that’ll help us all in the draft.”

Fortunately for Florida O’Sullivan has experience in handling this issue. When you build a baseball powerhouse like O’Sullivan has in Gainesville the MLB Draft regularly poaches players and handling that is something Sully has done well. In his eight years at Florida O’Sullivan has had 61 players drafted (including nine last year). He’s equipped to handle this situation and best prepare each of his draft eligible players to play the balancing act.

“I think Logan and AJ, Buddy and there’s a bunch of guys that have a chance to go good in the draft. But we don’t talk about the draft,” O’Sullivan said. “I mean these guys know, they’ve been around. They’ve been through this process out of high school so this isn’t their first time going through the draft and I think from my standpoint that makes me feel good going in the season.”

Possibly the biggest factor that will help stave off thoughts of the draft is the pain the players still feel after coming up short in Omaha last season. The team lost players like Richie Martin, Harrison Bader, Taylor Lewis and Josh Tobias, but the 2016 version of the Florida Gators is just as good. Last year the Gators thought they were good but they were largely inexperienced and coming off of two disappointing trips to the NCAA Tournament. This team, this year, they know they’re good, really good.

When we got ranked in the 1st poll, whichever one it was, I’m not sure, we were like ‘wow that’s cool.’ So I think we knew it right off the bat, it doesn’t really scare us,” outfielder Ryan Larson said. “We’re enjoying it, it’s fun.”

“Just come out and watch us play. We’re good, and we think we’re good and that’s all that matters to us right now.”

The Florida Gators are No. 1 for a reason. They’re certainly going to have a large presence in the 2016 MLB Draft, and even in the first round but there are 56 regular season games, the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament to play. Listen to Larson, come out to the Mac and watch this team play, most of them will be playing professionally before you know it.

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Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC