Opening night last season for the Gator baseball team was supposed to mark the beginning of a transition year for Avery Barnes. Scheduled to be a starter in the outfield, it only took one game for him to become Florida’s jack-of-all-trades infielder.
After third baseman Brandon McArthur’s season ended with a torn ligament in his throwing elbow the first game, Barnes was quickly shuffled back to the infield to provide much-needed depth.
“I actually started the season opener in center field last year,” said Barnes, who will be in the starting lineup tonight as the Gators open their 2008 season with Siena (6:30 p.m., McKethan Stadium). “I came back to the infield after Brandon’s injury. The coaches trusted me at every position, so it wasn’t much of an issue for me.”
A now-healthy McArthur has moved to first base for the Gators and with the emergence of sophomores Cole Figueroa at shortstop and Clayton Pisani at second base, the infield is solid and that has allowed Barnes to move back to the outfield where he will fill an immediate need as the starter in left field.
“I’m enjoying it in the outfield,” Barnes said. “It’s a lot different than playing the infield. There isn’t as much pressure out there as there is in the infield. At the same time, if you mess up in the outfield you kind of look like an idiot.”
Barnes hasn’t made the transition by himself this offseason. He has Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team outfielders Matt den Dekker and Jonathan Pigott helping him with the move along with new assistant coach Craig Bell, who has played a large role in getting him ready for the long grind of the college baseball season.
“I give Coach Bell almost all the credit,” Barnes said. “I’ve been an infielder my whole life and knew nothing about the outfield before I played there a few times last season. I’ve got to thank him for sticking with me and helping me through the times when I didn’t get everything right. Coach Bell will always stay after practice and work on things with me. He’s staying on me to make sure I keep working hard.”
Barnes had played and practiced the outfield positions last year before he moved to the infield, but now that he’s made a permanent move, he is discovering a new set of challenges.
“It’s a lot tougher for me to get reads on where the ball is going off the bat,” Barnes said. “In the infield, the ball is hit and it is right on top of you. In the outfield, I’ve got a little more time to see the ball and find out where it’s going to get settled and catch the ball.”
With Barnes, den Dekker and Pigott, Florida will have some serious closing speed in the outfield. All three are capable of running the ball down in the gaps and they make up what should be one of the fastest outfields in the nation.
“We’ve got some real fast guys out there with me,” Barnes said. “Matt den Dekker is one of the fastest guys around and gets to just about any ball as well as anyone in the country. Jonathan Pigott runs extremely well and catches up to just about any ball hit into the gaps or down the line. I’m honestly just trying to keep up with them. They’ve got more experience than I do, and I’ve been looking up to them quite a bit.”
The system in place for the Florida outfielders is in place to make them more comfortable. It will allow Barnes to focus on making plays in the outfield while still having more experienced players to lean on, he said.
“Coach Bell relays all of our signals in to Matt in center field,” Barnes said. “I guess you could call him the quarterback of our outfield. Matt hollers it out to the other two outfielders from there. It’s easier for me to be comfortable because they check with me to make sure I know what is going on before every pitch.”
He could move back to the infield if injuries were to hurt the team again this year, but greater infield depth this season makes another move unlikely, he said.
“I just want to be the guy where the coaches know they can put me at whatever position I’m needed and I will do the job,” Barnes said.