Pigott’s bat has changed Gators

Daniel Pigott’s freshman year at the University of Florida has been a learning experiences.

Off the field, he had to deal with the issues all freshmen do. Being away from home, going to class and learning responsibility have kept him humble, and with what he has already accomplished on the baseball field, that is a good thing.

“I’ve said it plenty of times, but I think Daniel’s move to the No. 2 spot in the lineup has been very important to the offense,” said Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, whose team begins an important Southeastern Conference series Friday night at 6:30 against Mississippi at McKethan Stadium.

The freshman, who older brother Jonathan is a junior outfielder for the Gators, is hitting .321, with three home runs, 19 runs scored and 17 RBI. He’s a contact hitter who is also the best bunter on the team. He proved that with a walk-off bunt single to complete a seven-run, ninth-inning comeback in a 9-8 victory over Alabama last month.

“He can bunt and he can run,” O’Sullivan said. “He can hit a gap and he’s got power. The thing we liked about him when we recruited him is he can get to first base in 4.1 seconds from the right-handed batters’ box. That’s hard to find.”

The Florida coaches have seen the same player in the Gator lineup that they saw when he competed at baseball showcases as a high school player. When Pigott signed, O’Sullivan referred to him as an old-school player who sprinted on and off the field while playing for Seabreeze High School near his home in Ormond Beach, giving his all every play.

Budgeting time between schoolwork and baseball was tough to learn.

“I’ve learned a lot about time management,” Pigott said. “It’s tough to manage things sometimes at this level. You’ve got to get all your homework done in the little amount of spare time you have. Then you’re on the road some weekends so that adds to it. I know how to use my time a lot more effectively.”

The season has already featured road trips to Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Auburn as well as a midweek game at Florida State, where Pigott’s dad graduated. Each road trip has allowed him to see a tough environment, but it has offered him an experience of a lifetime.

“Going on the road has been a cool experience,” Pigott said. “The weekend at Arkansas was crazy. They had huge crowds in there for every game. They’ve got hecklers out at every place, but that was the worst place.”

Pigott has lined up in right field and away from most hecklers that he says sit near left field. His senior teammate has taken the brunt of most vocal abuse.

“Avery (Barnes) got it bad that weekend,” Pigott said. “He usually gets it the worst since he’s in left field and most fans are there. Plus he’s been here at Florida for a while so teams all over the league know him. We always laugh about it in the dugout.”

Pigott is only one of the freshmen success stories. Four freshmen have a sub-4.20 ERA on the pitching staff. Pigott and first baseman Preston Tucker are the only two freshmen consistently in the lineup, but they have brought a tremendous spark. Tucker is hitting .357 with eight home runs and 49 RBI.

“It’s been really cool to see how that has worked out,” Pigott said of his freshmen teammates. “I like that it hasn’t taken us long as a class to help this team out. We’ve got a pretty large class, and a good number of us are contributing.”

Of all the memories from the first half of the season, the success his team has experienced is his favorite part.

“The thing that sticks out the most about all this is the season we’ve had,” Pigott said. “We got off to a good start that first weekend, then we had a short lull but now we’re working hard and moving in the right direction.”

Another step in that direction would come with a series victory over Ole Miss this weekend. The Rebels come to town with a 26-10 (9-6 SEC West) record, fresh off losing two of three games at home to South Carolina and beating Mississippi State on Tuesday night.

The Rebels pitching staff ranks among the best in the SEC. Their 4.22 ERA and 344 strikeouts are third in the SEC. They rank in the middle of most other pitching statistics, but they are tied for first in the fewest home runs allowed.

Sophomore left-hander Drew Pomeranz (3-1, 4.01 ERA) will get the start on Friday night for Ole Miss. Florida will oppose Pomeranz with junior right-hander Jeff Barfield (2-0, 2.78 ERA). First pitch is scheduled for 6:30.

Junior RHP Phillip Irwin (5-2, 3.44 ERA) will start Saturday for Ole Miss against Florida senior Stephen Locke (1-0, 2.60 ERA). First pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m.

Senior right-hander Scott Bittle (3-2, 1.93 ERA) will start Sunday for Ole Miss. He was drafted by the New York Yankees last season in the second round with the 75th pick, but he elected to return to school instead of signing. The Gators haven’t announced their starting pitcher for Sunday, and O’Sullivan said it would depend on which pitchers have been used out of the bullpen. First pitch is scheduled for 12:30 p.m.

“They’re a top-15 team in the country,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve got a deep bullpen. I really like their pitching.”

The Rebels lost Friday night starter Lance Lynn and Saturday starter Cody Satterwhite from last season, but there is no weak spot in their pitching staff.

“There’s not one that I see,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve got tons of depth. They’ve got 7-8 guys they count on.”

Florida won the series last season at Ole Miss, even after blowing a ninth-inning lead thanks to a masterful pitching performance from now-closer Billy Bullock. The Gator pitching was solid enough to allow the team to regroup to take the Saturday and Sunday games, but the Florida offense still sputtered because of the Ole Miss pitching staff.

“Even though they lost their two main guys, they’ve still got good arms,” Florida catcher Buddy Munroe said. “Last year it seemed like every guy they used out of the bullpen came in and was just as good as their starters. There are no questions about their pitching.”

The Rebels are ranked fifth in the SEC with a .307 batting average. They are a team that relies on small ball, ranking 10th in the SEC with only 31 home runs. Florida has 38 home runs this year. Ole Miss is third in the SEC with 56 stolen bases.

Leadoff hitter Jordan Henry makes the Ole Miss offense go. He is currently batting .381 with 22 RBI. He boasts an on-base percentage of .494 and is 22-of-27 in stolen bases this year.

Logan Power hits after Henry, with a .323 batting average, along with four home runs and 32 RBI.

Matt Snyder is tied for the team lead with six home runs. He hits third with a .317 batting average, along with 21 RBI.

Matt Smith has been a reliable hitter for the Rebels. He is second on the team with a .349 batting average, along with four home runs and 30 RBI.

The Florida pitchers will need to be on the top of their game. Behind the announced starters of Barfield and Locke, the Gators have four freshmen they feel comfortable giving the ball to at any point in the game.

Anthony DeSclafani, Greg Larson, Nick Maronde and Alex Panteliodis have given the Gators a deep pitching staff. After the Florida coaches struggled to get through games last season, the newcomers have been welcomed additions.

“Those guys have been a huge help,” Munroe said. “As the season goes on, they’re learning how to pitch instead of just throwing. They’re finding out when they’ve got to get tough out on the mound. They’re not being cute with their pitches anymore. Now they’re just attacking hitters.”