OMAHA, Neb. – It’s not Florida’s youth that impresses ESPN college baseball analyst Kyle Peterson.
It’s the places in the lineup and positions on the field that the young Gators have thrived in that have made Peterson a fan.
Plenty of college baseball coaches across the country write freshmen into their lineups on a daily basis. They’ll even bring in blue-chip recruits that could have easily played professional ball, just as the Gators did in the offseason.
But what makes Florida different is the responsibilities that head coach Kevin O’Sullivan has handed his talented young players. To be 47-15, to win the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship and to roll through the regional and super regional portion of the tournament to get to the College World Series has truly been remarkable in Peterson’s mind.
“A lot of times at other schools you see freshman hitting eighth and ninth or just playing right field,” Peterson said. “Nothing against that, but Florida has a freshman leading off and playing shortstop (Nolan Fontana). They’ve got a freshman hitting cleanup with 71 RBIs (Austin Maddox). There’s a freshman behind the plate (Mike Zunino) and two freshmen on the weekends (Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson). That’s what you don’t see a lot.
“It just speaks to these kids,” Peterson continued. “The talent is part of it, but they’ve got a total package with Florida.”
The young pitching rotation has been a concern at times for the Gators. With sophomore left-hander Alex Panteliodis and the right-handed Randall and the left-handed Johnson throwing the following two games, there is rarely a chance to know how they will respond to the atmosphere.
Randall pitched brilliantly when the Gators clinched the SEC regular-season championship in Columbia, S.C., while Johnson got a big victory in a key Sunday game at Mississippi when the Gators needed one.
Both pitchers have shown up in the postseason as well. Randall (8-3, 2.95 ERA) struck out 10 in seven innings against Bethune-Cookman in the regional and then followed it by two-hitting Miami for 6.2 innings in the super regional. In his last 11 starts, Randall has an ERA under 2.00.
“You don’t see a lot of freshmen that are comfortable with what they have,” Peterson said. “There are a lot of guys that will try to do more than they can. He knows what he’s got. He’s not a guy who is going to throw it 95 (mph) and throw it by people. He throws within his stuff as well as you’re going to see a freshman do. It’s a lot tougher said than done.”
Johnson (6-4, 3.97 ERA) threw seven shutout innings to get the victory for the Gators in their 15-0 regional championship victory against Florida Atlantic. He wasn’t needed in the super regional since Florida needed just two games to punch its ticket to Omaha. Johnson, of course, is unique because he combines his pitching ability with an ability to also hit. He is batting .413 with four home runs and 19 RBIs in 80 at-bats this season.
“He can show you some different things from the left side,” Peterson said. “I like guys that hit as well because they think a little differently, like a hitter.”
Panteliodis (11-2, 3.26 ERA) has become the grizzled veteran of the staff, having faced opponents’ best pitchers all season.
“Panteliodis was as good as he could’ve been against Miami,” Panteliodis said. “He just controls that fastball as well as you could ask anybody to do it.”
With solid pitching, the Florida defense hasn’t given the opposition many extra outs. The Gators’ .978 fielding percentage is the best of the eight teams remaining in the College World Series, and it all starts up the middle.
Shortstop Fontana has made only three errors in 275 chances this season in 61 games. Junior second baseman Josh Adams has only made five errors this season. Mike Zunino has a .995 fielding percentage, making only two errors on catcher’s interference.
And there is no one in the country who covers center field like Matt den Dekker does.
“It’s tough for anybody to be any better (defensively up the middle),” Peterson said. “You’ve got the freshman who can do everything at short and Adams, who has been there for a while, at second. Then with den Dekker, I haven’t seen anybody better in center field this year. The freshman behind the plate can work it too.”
That combination of pitching and defense is what has gotten the Gators to this point. Peterson has noticed a recent trend of teams leaving Omaha with the trophy—they have all pitched well and played defense.
“When you look at what this tournament has been the last seven years, it has been about teams that can pitch for the most part,” Peterson said. “The ballpark is playing different than it was 10 years ago.”
The wind has been blowing in over the past few years, making the field play larger than it actually is. Rosenblatt is 335 feet down both lines with 375-foot fences in the gaps. The 408-foot fence in center is farther than most in collegiate baseball. The park looks deep when you first see it, but the wind blowing in can make it even more of a pitcher’s park.
That should help the Gators. But even without it, the Gators have as good of a shot as any team to close down Rosenblatt Stadium’s final season with a national championship.
“They’re among the three or four teams you’ve got to look at as having a good shot,” Peterson said.
The Gator kids have their hands in the cookie jar.
NCAA DIVISION I BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
COLLEGE WORLD SERIES / Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium / Omaha, Neb. / June 19-30
Saturday, June 19
Game 1: Texas Christian (51-12) vs. Florida State (47-18), 2 p.m. (ESPNHD)
Game 2: (3) Florida (47-15) vs. (6) UCLA (48-14), 7 p.m. (ESPNHD)
Monday, June 21
Game 5: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2HD). Elimination game
Game 6: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 9 p.m. (ESPN2HD)
Wednesday, June 23
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs. Loser Game 6, 7 p.m. (ESPN2HD). Elimination game
Friday, June 25
Game 11: Winner Game 6 vs. Winner Game 9, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2HD). Possible elimination game. If Winner Game 6 wins Game 11, it moves into Championship Series and Loser Game 11 is eliminated; if Winner Game 6 loses, teams play Saturday, June 26 at 2 p.m.
Saturday, June 26
Game 13: Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11, 2 p.m. (ESPN2HD). Winner to Championship Series, loser eliminated.
Sunday, June 20
Game 3: Oklahoma (48-16) vs. South Carolina (48-15), 2 p.m. (ESPNHD)
Game 4: (1) Arizona State (52-8) vs. Clemson (43-23), 7 p.m. (ESPNHD)
Tuesday, June 22
Game 7: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2HD). Elimination game
Game 8: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 9 p.m. (ESPN2HD)
Thursday, June 24
Game 10: Winner Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8, 7 p.m. (ESPN2HD). Elimination game
Friday, June 25
Game 12: Winner Game 8 vs. Winner Game 10, 9 p.m. (ESPN2HD). Possible elimination game. If Winner Game 8 wins Game 12, it moves into Championship Series and Loser Game 12 is eliminated; if Winner Game 8 loses, teams play Saturday, June 26 at 2 or 7 p.m.
Saturday, June 26
Game 13/14: Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12, 2 or 7 p.m. (ESPN2HD). Winner to Championship Series, loser eliminated.
CHAMPIONSHIP / Best-of-3 series
Monday, June 28
Game 1: Bracket I winner vs. Bracket II winner, 7:30 p.m. ET
Tuesday, June 29
Game 2: Bracket I winner vs. Bracket II winner, 7:30 p.m. ET
Wednesday, June 30
Game 3: Bracket I winner vs. Bracket II winner, if necessary, 7:30 p.m. ET