McArthur impressed by Florida freshmen

As he has been for most of his collegiate career, Brandon McArthur has been one of the top players for the Florida Gators. This season, however, the redshirt senior has been doing his work quietly.

The emergence of some younger bats in the lineup has allowed McArthur not to be the focal point of the offense. His .312 batting average, one home run and 24 RBI may say otherwise, but the emergence of freshmen Daniel Pigott and Preston Tucker has allowed McArthur to drop lower in the lineup, including some appearances in the No. 6 hole of the order this season.

And McArthur doesn’t care. His biggest contribution for coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s team has come in the field. Florida (28-14, 10-8 SEC East) struggled to find a working infield defensively at the beginning of the year until McArthur stepped up at third base. With Mike Mooney now healthy and playing solid at shortstop, the Gators have improved defensively.

“Everything is starting to click for us,” said McArthur. “Knock on wood, but every injury we’ve had to this point has been small. No large injuries have hurt us. We know that we struggled early in the season, and those days were tough, but we’ve got a lot of confidence now. No SEC series is a walk in the park, but we feel good about how we’re playing.”

McArthur started the season as the team’s first baseman but the hot-hitting Tucker (.333, 9 HR, 53 RBI) now is there. Tucker has made just two errors in 269 chances. The freshman’s bat has been entrenched in the middle of the Florida lineup, giving them a viable power threat capable of hitting a home run during any at-bat.

“(Tucker) doubted himself a little at the beginning of the season, but he kept pushing himself,” McArthur added. “He’s starting to settle in. It’s really fun to watch a young guy do that.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Pigott (.311, 3 HR, 21 RBI) has been solid in right field and in the No. 2 hole in the lineup behind leadoff batter Matt den Dekker (.312, 5 HR, 22 RBI).

This weekend the Gators host the South Carolina Gamecocks (27-15, 9-9 SEC East) in a critical conference series for both teams. Heading down the stretch of conference play, O’Sullivan knows the importance of these last four series.

“Every week in this conference is different, and you have to put each series behind you whether you win or lose,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re coming down the stretch here though and we need to play well.”

South Carolina coach Ray Tanner has been around the block in this conference a few times. He has learned not to panic at the beginning of the season because he knows the conference games at the end of the season are the ones that matter the most.

“It always comes down to these last few series,” Tanner said. “There’s always a small distance between the top and bottom teams in this league. Sometimes your season can come down to one of your guys making a big pitch or getting a big hit. We just want an opportunity. That’s what makes the SEC what it is.”

The South Carolina offense is not the same group of home run hitters that eliminated the Gators from the SEC Tournament last spring, even though they are tied with Florida for fourth in the SEC with 312 runs scored this spring.

Justin Smoak (1st round, 11th overall), Reese Havens (1-22) and James Darnell (2-69) are all gone from the middle of the Gamecock offense. However, the offense still ranks sixth in batting average (.305), fourth in slugging percentage (.519) and fourth in home runs (70).

Ranked eighth in the SEC in earned run average (5.01), the South Carolina pitchers are first in batting average against (.252) and second in the league in hits allowed (354). South Carolina pitchers also have issued 189 free passes, 11th in the conference.

South Carolina will start Sam Dyson (6-2, 4.87 ERA) Friday night. The sophomore is considered by Baseball America as the second-hardest thrower in the country, behind San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who has occasionally surpassed 100 miles per hour.

Dyson throws consistently in the mid 90s and has reached some of his top velocities in the later innings of a start. In 57.1 innings of work, Dyson has struck out 54 batters. Dyson also has walked 25 batters and has surrendered nine home runs this season.

Florida has not decided on a starting pitcher for Friday night, but it will be either freshman right-hander Anthony DeSclafani (4-1, 2.75 ERA) or senior left-hander Stephen Locke (2-0, 3.24 ERA). First pitch is scheduled for 6:30.

The Gamecocks will start freshmen left-hander Nolan Belcher (2-2, 4.25 ERA) Saturday at 4 p.m. He has allowed 44 hits in 48.2 innings while striking out 45. Florida will start whoever doesn’t start Friday’s game.

South Carolina will start Blake Cooper (5-3, 4.73 ERA) in the Sunday series finale at 1 p.m.. The junior right-hander has allowed 56 hits in 51.1 innings, and the opposition is batting .286 against him. Florida is going to wait to announce its Sunday starter.

Tanner knows his offense is facing a challenge against Florida’s pitching staff that leads the SEC with an ERA of 3.70. Most of the arms that South Carolina will see are underclassmen, and Tanner has a lot of respect for the job O’Sullivan has done.

“That is how you win games,” Tanner said. “Their staff is very good. They get those nine innings done with many different guys. DeSclafani and Locke have been good for them, and (Nick) Maronde has given them some good innings. I like what (Greg) Larson does for them, too. Then Billy Bullock has a lot of saves for them. Tony Davis can come in and match up, so we’ve got to capitalize on opportunities.”

The South Carolina offense is among the best in the country when center fielder Whit Merrifield gets on base. He is hitting .333 with seven home runs and 33 RBI this season. He is also the team’s leading base-stealer, going 11-for-15 in that category this season.

“Whit is a baseball player,” Tanner said. “He has the intangibles and maturity level you want. He’s been a joy since he has been here. He is the epitome of what coaches want in a player. Lots of players are concerned about themselves, but not Whit. I know his approach doesn’t change no matter what.”

Left fielder DeAngelo Mack hits second for South Carolina, and he boasts the best batting average on the team at .355 as well as the team lead with 45 RBI. The junior is also second on the team in home runs with 11. First baseman Nick Ebert holds the team lead with 14 home runs. He is hitting .333 with 44 RBI. Freshman Jackie Bradley Jr. is the cleanup hitter with a .320 average, seven home runs and 28 RBI.