Josh Tobias went 54 games without recording an error in 2015 — something unheard of at the hot corner. Richie Martin played as good of a shortstop as any Florida Gators shortstop since Nolan Fontana, routinely making the spectacular look routine. Those two anchored a defense that was the best in school history and the best in NCAA history entering the College World Series.
Baseball is a game of failure. The best hitter in the country will fail seven times out of 10. Sometimes a pitcher will go to the mound and he won’t have his best stuff. There are so many things in the game that you can’t control but one thing you can is defense. Kevin O’Sullivan has made defense a point of emphasis in his eight seasons at Florida. During his tenure, Florida has had six of the best defenses in school history.
“It’s hard for a coach to leave practice and feel good about both offensively and defensively because either pitching dominates or the hitting gets the best of the pitching,” O’Sullivan said. “I think the one consistent is we play really good defense.”
Florida enters the 2016 season with a loaded pitching staff and a good mix of speed, power and average in the box, but they will quickly be reminded by Sully where they need to focus first. Replacing Martin, Tobias and Harrison Bader in the field will be no easy task, but the Gators’ defense saved them at times in 2015 and they’ll need to play defense at an elite level if they want to get back to Omaha.
Replacing a first round pick in Martin is no small task, but sophomore Dalton Guthrie will attempt it. Guthrie was a stalwart at second base and the top of the lineup as a freshman. Guthrie started every game he played in, missing just one contest with a hand injury. He hit .287 on the season, and an even better .294 against SEC foes. He committed just six errors, but moving to shortstop is a lot more challenging a proposition than second.
“From a physical standpoint, I had to put on a little weight, get a little stronger with my legs,” said Guthrie. “Just kind of stretch my arm back out from playing second base and really just get a lot of reps.”
Getting a full season playing next to Martin also helped. O’Sullivan and his coaching staff had the foresight to get Dalton reps at shortstop last season, knowing that he would be the likely replacement for Martin in 2016. Martin returned to Gainesville in the fall as he prepared for his first professional spring training and Guthrie made sure to be the best pupil he could with Martin back at the Mac.
“He’s definitely the best shortstop that I’ve ever played with,” Guthrie said. “Really, it’s just figuring out what he does that was successful, whether it’s reading pitches or picking up things in batter’s swings and stuff, anything that we’ve been talking about the past couple days that he’s been here. I’m just trying to pick his brain a little bit.”
When the Gators take the field on Friday Guthrie will have freshmen flanking him. Much like him, third baseman Jonathan India and second baseman Deacon Liput are relative unknowns. The Milwaukee Brewers selected India in the 26th round after hitting .405 during his senior season. The New York Yankees selected Liput in the 39th round after he hit .473 with 33 runs and 16 RBIs during his senior season.
“We’ve had some freshmen who have been successful, but you never know until you start playing games,” O’Sullivan said. “A couple of freshmen had good falls. You really have to kind of ease them in a little bit and get their feet wet because you don’t know how they’re going to respond until the season starts.”
There is a certain pressure for freshmen when they get on campus. They were the big men on campus a few months before arriving in Gainesville. They walk into the baseball facility and are immediately greeted by some older SEC Championship trophies that remind of the history that the program has and then a few brand new, shiny trophies, including several from just last season that remind of the new expectations. They enter a locker room with new faces and are eager to prove themselves. That new feeling and nerves that come with it soon fade as the team goes through fall practice, but the real test hasn’t even begun.
“It’s just a game. It’s the same game that you’ve been playing ever since you were little,” junior first baseman Pete Alonso said when asked what advice he would give to the freshmen. “Don’t overthink, just be natural, play the game how you know how.”
The Gators will look very different when they take the field on Friday night, especially in the infield. That can’t be used an excuse once the games start and the players don’t think they’ll need to make any excuses.
“They’ve been doing well. They’re definitely holding their own. “They’ve looked as good as you can so far. Until the season starts, you never know,” said Guthrie. “We’re trying to do the best we can to prepare them. I’m sure they’ll do a good job.”