Gators get busy on the diamond

While freezing temperatures may have dampened the excitement at Tennessee and Kentucky, the Gators took the field Sunday on the first day allowed by the NCAA for college baseball teams to practice. The bright blue skies and temperatures in the mid-60s may have given the impression of a relaxed practice, but on the field of McKethan Stadium there was a sense of urgency.

“There’s not much time to get ready for the first game,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said of the opener Feb. 20 when the Gators host No. 11-ranked Louisville. “We’ve only got three weeks so we’ve got to get to work.”

The importance of each practice from now until the first game can’t be overstated. There is limited practice time once the season gets started, as the only days without games are usually Mondays and Thursdays, so the team knows hard work must be put in. Regardless of the grueling practices ahead, the team is still excited about being on the field again.

“Everybody feels the same way about getting to put the practice stuff back on and get to the field,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s been an awfully long time since we got out here as a team together. We’re all excited.”

Most teams in the country will open up with easy weekend series before getting into the tough part of the schedule. After the Gators, coming off a 34-24 season, host Louisville the opening weekend, the Miami Hurricanes will come to town the second weekend of the year. That means the Gators will play against two consensus Top 25 teams in six of their first eight games.

“We wanted to challenge our team,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a marathon though. No team is the same at the beginning of the year as they are at the end, and our goal is to be the best we can at the end of the season. To do that, we have to play the best competition possible. Our season won’t be defined by how well we do the first two weekends. Our goal is to get to Omaha and that happens by playing your best ball at the end of the year.”

The key to a run to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series will be a quick maturation from the freshmen class of pitchers. Sophomore Tommy Toledo (RHP, 6-3, 185, Tampa Alonso) had arthroscopic surgery to end his season, and senior Stephen Locke was dismissed from the team, forming to gaping holes in the rotation.

The weekend pitching staff will now depend on two of three freshmen – Nick Maronde (LHP, 6-3, 195, Lexington, Ky.), Anthony DeSclafani (RHP, 6-2, 180, Freehold, N.J.) or Alex Panteliodis (LHP, 6-2, 240, Tampa Alonso) – to fill the Saturday and Sunday roles of the pitching rotation. The Florida coaching staff recruited them to contribute immediately and they will have a chance to do that.

“Every kid is different,” O’Sullivan said. “Recruiting classes are different. The young guys have responded well. They’ve done nothing to make me believe they won’t be able to contribute right away.”

Maronde, DeSclafani and Panteliodis were all highly regarded prospects. Maronde would have been a top three-round selection in the Major League Draft, but he was represented by agent Scott Boras and also told teams he wanted to go to school. DeSclafani was selected in the 22nd round by the Boston Red Sox and withstood a late charge by the Red Sox to sign him before he went to play in Gainesville. Panteliodis wasn’t selected in the draft, but he did go a two-year span without losing a game for Tampa Alonso High School.

“They throw strikes, but they’re extremely talented,” O’Sullivan said. “Having some success in the fall may have helped them with confidence. There will be ups and downs. I don’t want to put pressure on them. If you’re talented and work hard, which they have, you tend to look for some positive results.

“It’s different as a position player because if you go 0-4, you get back in the lineup the next day. As a pitcher, you have to sit for a while and it kind of settles in. Success early on will be the key for those guys.”

The outlook of the bullpen is more positive than last season. The work put in by the Florida staff last season rivaled that of a patchwork quilt. The Gators were at a disadvantage without enough healthy arms, but they had to piece together enough pitchers to get through the season. With a large freshman class of pitchers and many pitchers returning from injury, O’Sullivan will have a deep bullpen for the first time in his tenure at Florida.

“Jeff Barfield (RHP, 6-0, 215, Jr., Perry, Ga.) has really come on in the last few months,” O’Sullivan said. “If the season were to start tomorrow, he’d probably be our closer. Tony Davis (LHP, 5-9, 185, Jr., Cooper City, Fla.) is as improved a pitcher in one year as anyone I’ve had a chance to work with. He’s an important part of this pitching staff because he is an older guy with experience who can bridge the gap late in games. Clint Franklin (RHP, 6-3, 200, Jr., Orlando, Fla.) will do that as well. Billy Bullock (RHP, 6-6, 225, Jr., Valrico, Fla.) has a lot of SEC starts under his belt, but he’ll give us some flexibility in the bullpen as well. He’s been throwing the ball really well.

“Justin Poovey (RHP, 6-0, 195, Fr., Granite Falls, N.C.) is throwing the ball as well as anyone we have right now. He can start, he can be a middle relief guy and he’s got closer stuff. He hasn’t pitched in two years so we’ll pick our spots early on. From a depth standpoint, we’re in better shape. The key will be putting the freshmen in positions to succeed, and if they do stumble, we need to have a backup plan.”

The offense for the Gators took a major hit when shortstop Cole Figueroa was drafted in the fifth round and signed with the San Diego Padres this summer. Infield Jon Townsend also graduated, but the rest of the offense returns for Florida.

“We’ve got some guys that can run at the top of the order and some people in the middle of it,” O’Sullivan said. “Our lineup will be solid. The whole goal is not to have a letup in the bottom half of the order. If we can get some solid production out of them, we’ve got a chance to be productive on offense.”

The 2008 season saw a rotation at the catcher position. Hampton Tignor (R/R, 6-1, 205, Jr., Sarasota, Fla.), Buddy Munroe (R/R, 5-11, 185, Jr., Miami, Fla.) and Teddy Foster (R/R, 6-3, 240, Sr., Jacksonville, Fla.) all split time last season, and this year freshman Ben McMahon (R/R, 6-0, 205, Fr., Windermere, Fla.) joins the fold.

“I don’t want a rotation,” O’Sullivan said, noting he didn’t want one last year either. “I want someone to step up and separate himself. That will be one of our biggest things over the next few weeks. They’re all capable.”

The Gator offense got a boost when senior Brandon McArthur (INF, R/R, 6-1, 200, Sr., Seffner, Fla.) was granted an extra season by the NCAA. Freshman Preston Tucker (1B/OF, L/L, 6-0, 205, Fr., Tampa, Fla.) also adds an elite power bat to the lineup. Tucker’s emergence has allowed Florida to toy with using McArthur at other positions to get the freshman’s bat in the middle of their lineup.

“A lot of it depends on Brandon’s knee,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s been responding well, but right now I don’t know if he can play three straight games defensively. We’ve toyed with the idea of moving Brandon to third base and playing Preston Tucker at first base. That’s probably our biggest question mark. We’ve got some options, and that’s important.”

Figueroa’s loss won’t be easy to make up for, but it will be made easier to get through with a solid defensive shortstop. That is what JUCO transfer Mike Mooney (INF, S/R, 5-8, 160, Jr., Loxahatchee, Fla.) has been billed as leading up to Gainesville, but he also surprised many when he had the top batting average on the team during the fall.

“He’s very good with the glove,” O’Sullivan said. “The best way to describe him offensively is that he’s a tough out. He’s got a good knowledge of the strike zone and battles at the plate.”

Senior Avery Barnes (OF/INF, L/R, 5-11, 175, High Springs, Fla.) was selected in the 40th round by the Washington Nationals this summer but decided to return for his final year. He returns to left field for the Gators, where he played like a veteran on defense last year in his first season at the position. However it’s what he brings to the Gator lineup that makes him so special.

“We’d like his bunt game to step up to the next level because he’s going to set the tone for us,” O’Sullivan said. “From the second half of last year on, I think he really improved all around. In my opinion, I think he was the best leadoff guy in the SEC over the second half. Having him back is a huge plus for us.”

Junior Matt den Dekker (OF, L/L, 6-1, 205, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) comes back after playing with Team USA over the summer. The unique experience gave him a chance to see new places, as well as play against some of the top national competition. He now returns as one of the best defensive players in the SEC.

“I just want Matt to do what he’s been doing,” O’Sullivan said. “Sometimes guys go into their junior year and they try to do too much. I just want him to do what he is capable of. I just want Matt to be Matt.”

The right field position has belonged to Jonathan Pigott (R/R, 6-2, 195, Jr., Ormond Beach, Fla.) over the past few years. He will most likely start there this season, but expect a fierce fight from Pigott’s freshman brother, Daniel (R/R, 6-2, 195, Ormond Beach, Fla.), and two-sport standout Riley Cooper (OF, R/R, 6-3, 215, So., Clearwater, Fla.)

“It’s still up in the air,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got Jonathan, Riley and Daniel. They’re all very capable. We’re going to let them battle it out.”

That is the theme with most positions as the Gators work toward opening night. Multiple positions are still open for playing time, and the Florida coaches hope that competitive atmosphere will breed a team hungry for success.