The Florida Gators baseball team is swinging to a different tune than it did a year ago.
The sound of the composite bats used nowadays gives baseball a different sound. It’s not the “ping” of an aluminum bat, nor the “crack” of a wood bat. It’s more muffled.
It filled the McKethan Stadium air on a perfect Friday for baseball.
Shorts and sunglasses were a must. That’s what coach Kevin O’Sullivan sported, along with a giddy, child-like smile.
His players were there for their first official practice of 2013. He was happy.
Mixing nerds with finely tuned athletes, the media was there, too.
Players took batting practice while dozens of media members — only a few wearing shorts and not this one, for the record — clustered just outside of the first base dugout with video cameras, digital recorders and iPhones to tweet details from the day.
Composite bats are not brand new to the college game. What will be new for the Gators is the team’s identity when it begins the 2013 season with a three-game home series against Duke on Feb. 15.
Each time a player clobbered the ball, he would sneak a quick peak to see if any reporters noticed. It was the first time in months these guys had slapped line drives in front of a crowd.
Between turns in the batting cage, second baseman Casey Turgeon strolled up to the crowd of reporters, falling on the first-interview-of-the-season sword for his team.
One joked with Turgeon for not shaving “for us” as others elbowed for positioning around him. “Oh,” Turgeon said as he stroked his chin with his right hand. “I forgot.”
The savvy sophomore hadn’t forgot how to handle reporters. He emerged a star as a starter last season, shining brightest in the postseason by being named Most Outstanding Player of the Gainesville Regional.
He wasn’t nervous Friday. His youthful voice didn’t crack in the slightest. He spoke with much more confidence and conviction that a year ago when he was a bright-eyed rookie.
Turgeon has made the switch from freshman follower to a sophomore leader on a team that features many fresh faces, even if a few were unshaven like Turgeon’s.
“Everyone wants to win, so it doesn’t matter who’s in there — I’m feeling good about it,” Turgeon said.
GatorCountry.com eluded to the team’s new identity in Part I of the two-part series previewing the 2013 Gators Baseball team.
Expect more bunts instead of bombs as well as more stolen bases, hit-and-runs and anything else the Gators’ offense can do to manufacture runs.
One of the few true power hitters, Vickash Ramjit, explained it best.
One of the team’s two seniors after the MLB draft swiped most of last season’s juniors was clean-shaven by the way.
“We have a lot of speed,” Ramjit said. “I’ve never been on a team with this much speed.”
Speed was the general theme from all of those who spoke. The team is going to have to play small ball, they said, instead of long ball.
Players begin working on bunting in the cage behind Ramjit, so his words rang true.
After laying down a few slow rollers down each base line, though, each would start swinging away again.
For O’Sullivan, tailoring his philosophy to fit the team’s talent is just part of coaching. It would be impossible to mirror the same identity of last year’s 47-20 squad that completed the most successful three-year run in the program’s history with a 147-56 record in that span.
That team saw eight players drafted in the top nine rounds and nine in the top 20 rounds. There were five draftees in the first three rounds, including first-rounders Mike Zunino and Brian Johnson.
“Our offense is going to be different this year and I think offensively how you coach and how you approach things as a coaching staff change from year-to-year depending on the personnel,” O’Sullivan said. “Our personnel is different; it is what it is, but it certainly could be as successful, we just have to do it a different way.”
It’s growing more difficult to sign pure power hitters. Most of the elite are drafted out of high school. Pro teams will pay big bucks for power. That said, the college game is evolving to where coaches have to recruit speed.
This team is fast with the addition of newcomers such as Richie Martin and Harrison Bader. Perhaps one of the fastest O’Sullivan has had in his six seasons at Florida.
That’s what everyone talked about on Friday anyway. Was kind of hard to take them seriously, though, as two of the team’s smaller players, Turgeon and Martin, launched long balls into the top level of the bleachers over the left field wall.
“We’re going to run a lot more this year, the coaches have told us that,” Tobias said.
Well, the coaches have told players that, so it must be true.
“That’s fine, I like to run,” Tobias said. “That’s going to make our offense a lot more explosive than it was last year.”
The bottom line is this team won’t be anemic to hitting home runs. Sure, it won’t hit 75 like it did last season, but it has the potential to swipe 100 bases after finishing with 66 stolen bases a year ago.
Who cares what this team’s identity is as long as the Gators reach their goal.
Wrinkling up his forehead and staring the reporter who asked the question in the eye, Tobias sternly, yet simply, explained the team’s goal in a matter-of-fact manner.
“Our identity is that of winners,” he said, just another teammate’s swing connected with the ball a few feet away.
The Gators certainly will be swinging to a different tune in 2013.