NCAA Gainesville Regional Preview: Florida Gators baseball

Story written by Jackson Ramer
The Florida Gators baseball team was rewarded with the No. 1 overall national seed for the second time under head coach Kevin O’Sullivan –previously done in 2012. This is the Gators 32nd overall appearance in regional play and a school-record 9th straight with Kevin O’Sullivan as the head coach.

Entering regional play with a 47-13 record, the Gators are looking to move on to the Super Regional’s for consecutive years for the first time since the 2011-2012 seasons.

On Friday night at 6 p.m. Florida will host fourth-seeded, and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champions, Bethune-Cookman (29-25). Joining the Gators and Wildcats this weekend in Gainesville will be the UCONN Huskies (37-23), winners of the American Athletic Conference, and the Ramblin’ Wreck of Georgia Tech (36-23). Georgia Tech will be the home team Friday afternoon when they take on UConn at 1 p.m.

Since taking over the Gators nine years ago, Kevin O’Sullivan has reached post-season play in each of his nine years. He has an overall record of 391-186 (.678%) since being the Gators head coach. O’Sullivan has led the Gators to four CWS appearances including three straight from 2010-2012. In 2011, O’Sullivan was awarded with Baseball America College Coach of the Year, while also being crowned SEC Coach of the Year in 2012 and 2014.

“I think the biggest thing is just being one of the top eight national seeds,” O’Sullivan said in a release. “Whether you’re first or eighth, it doesn’t have much impact on the big picture. The bottom line is playing at home for both the Regional and Super Regional.”

Even though he broke his hand two weeks ago against Vanderbilt, and has been out since, the Gators best hitter this year has been first basemen Pete Alonso. Sully expects him back for the Regional this weekend. Alonso led the Gators with a .352 batting average throughout the 2016 year, while also leading the Gators in home-runs (9), total bases (104), slugging percentage (.581), hit by pitches (9) and on-base percentage (.455). If he is back in the line-up this weekend watch out, he might get these Gator bats going.

The Gators starting rotation has pitched really phenomenally this year, led by junior pitcher Logan Shore, who posted a 10-0 record this season, while pitching three complete games. Shore has pitched a team high 86 innings and striking out 76 during that span. While being 10-0 on the mound this year, Shore had an ERA of 2.41. Expect him pitch Saturday night in game two.

The Bethune-Cookman Wildcats come into Gainesville this weekend on a six-game win streak after sweeping (4-0) the MEAC tournament. Under fifth-year head coach Jason Beverlin (143-150, .488%) the Wildcats (29-25) return to post-season play for the first time since 2014, when they were placed in the Coral Gables region.

Beverlin began his career at Bethune-Cookman five years ago after previously being on the Tennessee Volunteers coaching staff for one year (2010-2011), lowering the Vols team ERA from 6.16 in 2009 to 5.28 by 2011. Beverlin also lowered the Wildcats team ERA by 0.51 in his first year at the helm.

Junior catcher, and left-handed hitter, Michael Cruz has been the Wildcats best hitter this year, leading the ball club in home runs (16), slugging percentage (.622), walks (37) and hit-by-pitches (16), while also having the teams best on-base percentage (.468). Don’t let the power confuse you; Cruz also is third on the team in batting average (.322) and second in RBI’s (40) and hits (64). He is the only player for the Wildcats to play or start in all 54 games this year. He did both.

Tyler Norris, the 6’1 160 pound sophomore pitcher has been the most consistent starting pitcher this year for the Wildcats. Norris, a native of Coral Springs, Florida, leads the starting pitching rotation with a 4.16 ERA, cutting it down from 4.31 as a freshman. Norris finished the regular season with a 6-3 record, while leading the team in strikeouts (69). He was second on the staff for innings thrown with him pitching 67.0 innings. Norris also gave up the least amount of hits (62).

The third-seeded UConn Huskies (37-23) roll into the Gainesville region on a hot streak, winners in 13 of their last 14 outings, while being winners of the American Athletic Conference Championship this past weekend.

Jim Penders is in his 13th season at the helm of this Husky baseball team after playing for UConn from 1991-1994. In the 1994 season, Penders was named co-captain and led the team to a 26-19 record while winning the Big East Conference Tournament. That year Penders batted .354 with 7 home runs while driving in 46 runs. Coincidentally, the only year the Huskies made post-season play with Penders on the team, they lost to Georgia Tech in the NCAA regional play.

Since taking over UConn’s team, he has a record of 417-295-4 (.582) and has guided the Huskies to three NCAA tournament berths, including a Super Regional appearance in 2011. That was the year that UCONN also won its first Big East regular season championship under Jim Penders.

Senior first-baseman Bobby Melley has been the team’s best hitter since the beginning of the year. The 6’3 225 product is third on the team in batting average (.312) and total bases (114). Melley also has increased his home-run numbers by a whopping 9, after hitting one in the 2015 season. He has showed his power this year by crushing 10 home-runs, which was second best on the team. The native of Barnstable, Massachusetts is second on the club in hits (69), doubles (15), runs batted in (53), slugging percentage (.516), and base on balls (41). He led the team with a .435 on-base percentage, no other player had over a .393 OBP.

The University of Connecticut has a phenomenal Friday-Saturday-Sunday rotation with all three pitchers posting an ERA lower than 2.71, but I am giving the nod to Anthony Kay as this year’s best pitcher on the staff.

Kay, the junior left-handed pitcher has dominated this year on the hill by having an earned run average of 2.46, slightly higher than his 2.07 ERA from last year. He has pitched 113.1 innings during his junior campaign, 37 more innings then any other pitcher on the rotation. Kay posted a 9-2 record on the mound while pitching two complete games. He recorded 108 strikeouts this year, while only allowing batters to have a .217 batting average against him.
Georgia Tech started the regular season 12-0, but has been losers in five of their last six games, including an embarrassing 1-3 stretch in the ACC tournament. Hoping to get back on the winning track, Tech opens up regional play this weekend Friday at 1 p.m. against UConn.

Danny Hall is in his 23rd season as the head coach at Georgia Tech, appearing in the NCAA regional tournament 20 times, including three CWS berths — the only three in school history. Hall has also led the Yellow Jackets to four ACC regular season championships, including five ACC Tournament championships, most recent being 2014. Since arriving in Atlanta, Hall has a record of 959-475-1 (.668%), which are the most wins in school history. The previous record was 504, held by Jim Morris, but Danny Hall broke that record in 2005.

The Yellow Jackets are loaded in the hitting line-up with six of their nine batters having an average of over .300. I would say the Senior 3B/OF Matt Gonzalez has been the teams best hitter so far this year by leading the team with an outstanding batting average of .370. Not only did Gonzalez lead the team in BA, he led the Yellow Jackets in hits (85), total bases (130) and stolen bases (10). He recorded 15 doubles this spring, while also being second on the team in home-runs (10) and RBIs (48).

Junior right-handed pitcher Brandon Gold has been the most dominant pitcher on this staff during the 2015 season. While posting a team low 2.38 ERA, he also finished the regular season with an 8-3 (.727%) record. The local native has pitched the most amount of innings than any other pitcher on the staff, while also facing 157 more batters than any other pitcher. Gold leads the Yellow Jackets pitching rotation with 76 strikeouts.