Gators baseball: ‘One game at a time’

A couple of clichés come into play when Florida hosts the 2012 NCAA Baseball Regional at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville.

The first, the No. 1 overall seeded Gators need to take it “one game at a time.”

The second, Florida must beat Bethune-Cookman for a third time this season when the Gators and Wildcats hook up at 7 p.m. on Friday.

In a four-team, double-elimination tournament, winning the opener is key for staying out of the loser’s bracket, thus saving pitching and keeping legs fresh. For the Gators (42-18), a win Friday means they would play the winner of Friday’s 1 p.m. game between second-seeded Georgia Tech and third-seeded College of Charleston at 7 p.m. on Saturday instead of during the heat of the day.

“It’s always important to start off on a good note,” said Florida pitcher Hudson Randall. “Coming out here with the first win gets us set up in the driver’s seat for the rest of the tournament. We’re definitely not looking past Bethune-Cookman. All of our energy and time is devoted to them right now.”

The Gators defeated the Wildcats twice during the regular season with both wins coming in McKethan Stadium. Beating a solid team three times in one season is supposed to be a difficult task, according to the cliché. Florida’s done it against top-tier opponents Florida State, Miami and Vanderbilt this season.

“It’s just keeping your team from a let-down,” Randall said. “Teams you’ve had a good track record against, that doesn’t mean anything. Year-to-year, it changes. Game-to-game, it changes, so it’s just [about] playing your best every game.”

Randall won’t start the opener, but the junior right-hander could get the nod on Saturday. Friday’s starter will be Jonathan Crawford, who’s 5-2 with a 3.34 ERA in 12 starts. He has struck out 60 batters in 62 innings and has had success working the inside of the plate, which also has led to his team-high 11 hit batsmen.

Randall was one of three players to meet with the media in the first-base dugout at The Mac on Thursday. Each spoke in some form or fashion about the importance of approaching the postseason one game at a time. That’s something Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan obviously has preached all season, and especially during what he described as three “really good” practices this week.

“At the beginning of the year,” junior shortstop Nolan Fontana said. “we’re focusing on one game at a time, trying to get to a national seed, which is a big part and we did and here we are. It’s set up for us.

“We’ve just got to play one game at a time, and one inning at a time.”

Fontana said he believes the team is peaking for the postseason with the offense coming around to compliment pitching and defense that continues to be the team’s strengths. After being a part of winning programs, including last season’s run to the College World Series finals, Fontana has an idea about what it will take to make a return trip to Omaha, Neb.

“A little bit of luck and hard work,” he said. “You’ve got to have great team to get to where we are now, and yeah, there will be a little bit of luck along the way. But you’ve got to execute offensively and defensively throughout the entire game, one through nine in the lineup.”

Questions were posed about the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, which begins Monday with Fontana among several juniors who figure to be early selections. Junior catcher Mike Zunino is projected to be among the top five players drafted while Fontana and first baseman/right-handed pitcher Brian Johnson also show up in the first round of a few mock drafts.

Fontana said he’s “not thinking about that at all.” A similar statement was echoed by Randall, who pundits predict to be selected in the first five rounds.

When the question was asked to O’Sullivan, he seemed a little irked.

“I’m not even going to discuss the draft,” O’Sullivan said. “It has nothing to do about this team, this weekend. I fully trust our players that they are fully focused on the task at hand and that’s worrying about Bethune-Cookman on Friday night.

“I don’t see it being a potential problem at all.”

What potentially could be a problem is Wildcats’ starting pitcher Rayan Gonzalez. Although he has not officially been announced as Friday’s starter, Bethune-Cookman likely will go with the senior right-hander who owns a 9-1 record and team-best 1.96 ERA in 87.1 innings.

“(Gonzalez’) numbers are great,” O’Sullvan said. “He’s got the most innings pitched on their team. He’s almost got about a strikeout per inning. He’s a guy they lean on … It’s going to be a challenge.

Another concern is the Wildcats’ ability to run. They’ve only hit 20 homers as a team, with half of those coming off the bat of sophomore first baseman Anthony Stokes, but have stolen a Gainesville Regional-best 102 bases in 130 attempts. Three players have 20 or more stolen bases.

“Every time you see Bethune as that fourth seed you kind of cringe a little bit because you know they’re capable,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re competitive. They run the bases well.

“We’re going to have to play well — it’s as simple as that.”

O’Sullivan spoke about how his team’s postseason experience should be an asset. He also said getting an early lead will be a key because “momentum is the biggest thing in the postseason. Once you get it, you’ve got to hold onto it.”

At this stage of the season, O’Sullivan said it’s not as much about coaching because coaches have done pretty much all they can to prepare their teams. It’s about the players performing well and executing everything they’ve been taught and learned during the regular season.

Still, the first task at hand for the Gators is winning their opener, which brought out another baseball cliché, as O’Sullivan acknowledged.

“I know that’s kind of cliché that you just worry about Friday night, but we’ve got to worry about Friday night,” he said. “I’m not worried about Saturday. I’m not worried about the first game on Friday — who wins, who doesn’t win.

“My focus is 100 percent on Bethune-Cookman.”

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Mike Capshaw brings a wealth of experience to the Gator Country team. He’s been overseeing all editorial aspects of and Gator Country magazine by managing our team of staffers, interns and freelancers. He is now moving into a bigger role as a reporter by covering the football and basketball beats as well as providing coverage of all sports on campus. Mike’s 15 years in the business has included more than six years of covering SEC sports and recruiting at a daily newspaper in Arkansas. He has also helped launch a newspaper, magazines, websites and even a sports talk radio show. Because Mike puts family ahead of his career, he left the place where he was established when his wife received an opportunity to further her career at UF. He took a leap of faith that he could find a job in the Gainesville area and worked for a year at a newspaper group before joining the Gator Country family in November, 2011. Mike has won Florida Press Association awards for Best Sports Game Story and Best Sports Feature Story in the past two years as well as a company-wide award at his former newspaper group that includes some 60 publications, for Excellence in Sports Reporting. You can follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeCapshawGC.