For two seasons, Teddy Foster’s routine with the Florida baseball program was the same – before a game, he would run down to the bullpen and warm up the pitchers.
For two seasons, every game, the 6-3, 240-pound Foster would watch how the games unfolded for the Gators from the bullpen, waiting with his shin guards and chest protector on to prepare the next pitcher to go into the game. One by one, the pitchers would throw to Foster and then leave.
No one ever thought that one of Foster’s better talents would manifest itself when he had a bat in his hands.
That all changed when Kevin O’Sullivan became the head coach at Florida following the 2007 season. Now Foster hears a different tune.
“Everyone tells me that I should have had a shot since my freshman year,” Foster said. “Whenever your shot comes, you have to take advantage of it.”
O’Sullivan came to the program with no preconceived notions of which players deserved to be in the lineup and which did not. That gave the former Bolles School standout a chance to make his own impression.
“Whenl the new coaching staff came in and wiped the slate clean,” Foster said, “it gave everyone a fresh shot.”
Foster’s shot came thanks to his experiences the previous years in the bullpen with left-hander Stephen Locke. The two had grown close on and off the field, and Locke loved throwing to Foster in the bullpen to get ready for the game.
So when Foster showed some positives signs with his bat before the 2008 season, O’Sullivan decided he would become Locke’s personal catcher much like Tim McCarver late in his career became the personal catcher of Philadelphia Phillies Hall of Fame left-hander Steve Carlton.
“When I became Locke’s personal catcher I think they saw that I could handle myself behind the plate and with the bat,” said Foster, whose first collegiate hit would be a pinch-hit home run in a 15-2 victory over Eastern Michigan. Foster would go on to hit .264 with two home runs and three RBI, modest by anyone’s standards, in 33 games (and 14 starts) and Florida would finish 34-24.
In the fall, Foster figured his role would be the same. But then came Jan. 24. Locke was thrown off the team because of a DUI incident, and while Foster had great concern for his teammate and friend, he also wondered about his role with the Gators.
He shouldn’t have worried.
“I think that was actually somewhat of a benefit to me because it made me work a little harder,” Foster said. “It paid off because I got a lot better.”
While Locke sat out his suspension, Foster took advantage of his opportunities, catching a few games and also getting some looks as Florida’s designated hitter.
“I tried to do the best I could with the few at-bats I got at the beginning of the season to show the coaches I deserved to be there every day,” Foster said. “I got a couple hits here and there to show them I could be the designated hitter and catch a couple games. I got on a nice little roll halfway through the year.”
And when Locke returned, the roll continued. Foster now not only is Locke’s personal catcher but also Florida’s designated hitter for most of the games when he isn’t on the field. Through Florida’s 36-17 start, Foster has played in 31 games (23 starts) and managed to bat .299 with five home runs and 17 RBI in just 67 at-bats.
As New York Yankees Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel appreciated his Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, O’Sullivan, himself a former All-Atlantic Coast Conference catcher at Virginia and a member of the ACC’s academic honor roll, knows what he has in Foster, a history major who twice has been on the SEC’s academic honor roll.
“Terry is smart,” O’Sullivan said. “He has good at-bats. He doesn’t give at-bats away. He has a knack for looking for certain pitches in certain counts. He doesn’t pull the ball. He puts it in play.”
That’s the kind of hitter the Gators will need when they begin the last regular-season series Thursday night at 6:30 against Kentucky at McKethan Stadium. The Gators (17-10) enter the series, which continues Friday at 6:30 p.m. and concludes Saturday at 4 p.m., with a two-game lead over Georgia in the SEC East Division race. Florida is coming off a 7-4 victory over Jacksonville following a 9-3 victory at No. 3 West Division leader Louisiana State, which took the first two games by scores of 10-1 and 4-0. Those two loses and a 17-5 setback against Florida Gulf Coast last week are Florida’s only losses in its last 13 games.
Florida’s magic number is 1—one victory over Kentucky or one Georgia loss to South Carolina—to clinch the East Division title and gain at least the No. 2 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala. Meanwhile, tthe Wildcats (27-24, 11-16 SEC East) enter the series battling Vanderbilt (31-21, 12-14) for the eighth and final spot in the tournament. Plus, Kentucky has won four of its last five games and five of its last seven under first-year head coach Gary Henderson, the school’s former associate head coach and pitching coach who once served as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Florida under former head coach Andy Lopez.
This is a Kentucky team that has struggled offensively but been masterful on the mound. The Wildcats rank ninth in the SEC in batting average (.296) and have the lowest slugging percentage in the SEC (.432). They are 10th in runs scored with 352, 10th in home runs with 50, last in walks with 199 and last in doubles with 74.
All of those statistics have put a strain on the pitching staff. Kentucky’s staff ERA ranks ninth in the SEC at 5.40 but the Wildcats are second in the SEC in strikeouts with 496. All of the other statistics are in the middle of the SEC, which is surprising for a staff that has so many highly regarded players.
“They pitch,” O’Sullivan said. “Everything starts on the mound for them. They’ve got a first-rounder (going) tomorrow night (in James Paxton). He and (Chris) Rusin both have over 100 strikeouts. This isn’t going to be easy. This is going to be a challenge for us. Everybody I’ve talked to said they might have the best pitching in the league with those two starters. If we can’t do what we need to do, we don’t deserve the rewards that could potentially come our way.”
Thursday starter Paxton, a 6-4, 215-pound junior southpaw, is projected to be a potential first-round pick in next month’s Major League Baseball draft. He is 5-2 with a 5.30 ERA with a team-best 109 strikeouts and just 20 walks in 73 innings. He will be opposed by Locke (3-1, 5.08 ERA).
The 6-4 senior left-hander Rusin, who has four complete games, has been one of the top pitchers in the SEC the last two seasons. He is 6-4 with a 3.96 ERA and has struck out 104 with just 25 walks in 86.1 innings. Florida freshman right-hander Anthony DeSciafani (5-2, 3.81 ERA) will oppose him.
Saturday, Kentucky will go with freshman right-hander Alex Meyer (1-4, 5.27 ERA), who despite his record is considered one of the top freshman pitchers in the nation because of his outstanding stuff. He has struck out 68 batters in 54.2 innings but has walked 43. Florida has not announced a Saturday starter.
If the Gators can get to the Kentucky bullpen, they could do some damage. Logan Darnell (5-5, 2 saves) has the lowest ERA in the bullpen at 4.40. Freshman Braden Kapteyn (5-0, 5.85 ERA) has a team-leading four saves.
Sophomore second baseman Chris Bisson leads Kentucky with a .373 batting average. Despite only hitting two home runs, he has a team-high 51 RBI and also is 13-of-15 in stolen bases.
Freshman left fielder Chad Wright has hit .324 with three home runs and 21 RBI on the year. Junior first baseman Gunner Glad, the cleanup hitter, is batting .320 with a team-leading nine home runs and 38 RBI. Kapteyn also doubles as the team’s designated hitter and has a .318 average with four home runs and 25 RBI.
SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE BASEBALL
EAST SEC Pct. GB All Pct.
Florida 17-10 .630 — 36-17 .679
Georgia 15-12 .556 2.0 35-17 .673
South Carolina 14-13 .519 3.0 34-19 .642
Vanderbilt 12-14 .462 4.5 31-21 .596
Kentucky 11-16 .407 6.0 27-24 .529
Tennessee 8-19 .296 9.0 23-29 .442
WEST SEC Pct. GB All Pct.
Louisiana State 18-9 .667 — 39-14 .736
Alabama 17-9 .654 0.5 36-15 .706
Mississippi 17-10 .630 1.0 37-15 .712
Arkansas 14-12 .538 3.5 32-17 .653
Auburn 9-18 .333 9.0 29-24 .547
Mississippi State 8-18 .308 9.5 24-27 .471
Thursday, May 14
Kentucky (LHP James Paxton 5-2, 5.30 ERA) at Florida (LHP Stephen Locke 3-1, 5.08 ERA), 6:30 p.m. (FSN)
Georgia (RHP Trevor Holder 7-3, 4.73 ERA) at South Carolina (RHP Sam Dyson 7-4, 5.70 ERA), 7 p.m.
Tennessee (LHP Nick Hernandez 2-5, 5.58 ERA) at Vanderbilt (RHP Sonny Gray 4-1, 4.74 ERA), 7 p.m.
Alabama (RHP Austin Hyatt 8-1, 3.13 ERA) at Auburn (RHP Jon Luke Jacobs 3-4, 6.10 ERA), 7 p.m.
Louisiana State (RHP Anthony Ranaudo 6-3, 3.10 ERA) at Mississippi State (LHP Tyler Whitney 3-4, 5.25 ERA), 7:30 p.m.
Mississippi (LHP Drew Pomeranz 5-3, 3.58 ERA) at Arkansas (LHP Dallas Keuchal 7-2, 3.99 ERA), 7:35 p.m.
Friday, May 15
Kentucky (LHP Chris Rusin 6-4, 3.96 ERA) at Florida (RHP Anthony DeScalfani 5-2, 3.81 ERA), 6:30 p.m.
Georgia (LHP Alex McRee 4-2, 4.35 ERA) at South Carolina (LHP Nolan Belcher 3-3, 5.48 ERA), 7 p.m.
Tennessee (TBA) at Vanderbilt (LHP Mike Minor 5-4, 3.72 ERA), 7 p.m.
Alabama (LHP Del Howell 5-2, 5.94 ERA) at Auburn (LHP Grant Dayton 2-6, 6.10 ERA), 7 p.m.
Louisiana State (RHP Louis Coleman 10-2, 2.45 ERA) at Mississippi State (LHP Nick Routt 5-3, 3.89 ERA), 7:30 p.m.
Mississippi (LHP Brett Bukvich 8-2, 4.31 ERA) at Arkansas (RHP Brett Eibner 4-4, 4.25 ERA), 7:35 p.m.
Saturday, May 16
Kentucky (RHP Alex Meyer 1-4, 5.27 ERA) at Florida (TBA), 4 p.m.
Georgia (RHP Justin Grimm 2-3, 4.36 ERA) at South Carolina (RHP Blake Cooper 7-4, 4.74 ERA), 1 p.m.
Tennessee (TBA) at Vanderbilt (RHP Drew Hayes 4-3, 5.72 ERA), 1 p.m.
Louisiana State (RHP Austin Ross 5-6, 5.09 ERA) at Mississippi State (TBA), 3 p.m.
Mississippi (RHP Phillip Irwin 6-3, 3.76 ERA) at Arkansas (RHP Justin Wells 2-0, 3.43 ERA), 3 p.m.
Alabama (LHP Adam Morgan 3-1, 3.57 ERA) at Auburn (RHP Dexter Price 4-2, 5.40 ERA), 4 p.m.
At Regions Park, Hoover, Ala.
Wednesday, May 20
Game 1: No. 7 seed vs. No. 2 seed, 11 a.m. (CSS)
Game 2: No. 6 seed vs. No. 3 seed, 2:30 p.m. (CSS)
Game 3: No. 8 seed vs. No. 1 seed, 6 p.m. (CSS)
Game 4: No. 5 seed vs. No. 4 seed, 9:30 p.m. (CSS)
Thursday, May 21
Game 5: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 11 a.m. (CSS)
Game 6: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 2:30 p.m. (CSS)
Game 7: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m. (CSS)
Game 8: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 9:30 p.m. (CSS)
Friday, May 22
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs. Loser Game 7, 4 p.m. (FSN)
Game 10: Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 8, 7:30 p.m. (FSN)
Saturday, May 23
Game 11: Winner Game 8 vs. Winner Game 9, 11 a.m. (FSN)
Game 12: Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 10, 2:30 p.m. (FSN)
Game 13: Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11, 6 p.m. (Game 13 will be necessary if Winner of Game 9 also wins Game 11)
Game 14: Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12, 9:30 p.m. (Game 14 will be necessary if winner of Game 10 also wins Game 12. If Game 13 is not necessary, Game 15 will start at 6 p.m.)
Sunday, May 24
Game 15: Winner Game 13 vs. Winner Game 14, 4 p.m. (FSN)
Note: If both bracket winners are undefeated, there will be no Game 13 and Game 14 and the championship game would be Game 13.
SEC TOURNAMENT SEEDINGS
As of Monday, May 11
1. Louisiana State-x
7. South Carolina-x
11. Mississippi State-y
x-clinched tournament berth
y-eliminated from tournament
REGIONALS (May 29-June 1)
Various campus sites
SUPER REGIONALS (June 5-8)
Various campus sites
COLLEGE WORLD SERIES (June 13-24)
At Omaha, Neb.