The Florida baseball team has seven days to ready itself for Southeastern Conference play. And as we’ve seen through the years, the SEC is brutal, so you’d better be ready from the first pitch. That’s little time to right the wrongs, make those final adjustments, and bring it all together before the Kevin O’Sullivan Era begins in earnest with an Eastern Division title on the line. That’s seven more days to find your breaking ball. Seven more days to make each and every appearance in the batter’s box make for a positive impact on the team. Seven more days to fine tune your timing when stealing bases.
That’s why Saturday’s three-game series with Brown is important as well as the midweek contest against Florida Gulf Coast. Those are the final tuneups before Auburn arrives in Gainesville for the opening weekend of SEC play a week from today.
Auburn was picked to finish fourth in the SEC West by the league’s coaches. That important series will be followed by a single midweek game against 20th-ranked Florida State followed by a three-game SEC series with second-ranked Ole Miss.
Sully, Weitzel, Bell, and Norris
They might sound like a law firm that would take legal action against Campbell for impersonating a baseball team, but the Florida coaching staff has already shown itself capable of making outstanding decisions. There are a few things that immediately come to mind when looking at how well they’re running this program. The young players and newcomers who are getting the reps (Josh Adams, Tommy Toledo, Travis Lawler, Buddy Munroe, Cody Barnes, Evan Chambers, and Chris Freshcorn) are performing at least somewhat better than typical freshmen. Adams, Toledo, and Lawler are much better than typical freshmen. Barnes struggled in his appearance on the mound and had improved dramatically. It is evident that they have prepared them very well and have not rushed them into service. And that is good coaching.
Yes, Florida looked horrendous in the first two games against Miami, but the players were in position to make plays and they didn’t. O’Sullivan is proving that he is willing to platoon players if necessary.
They are also recruiting well. I have referenced before my conversation with Aaron Fitt of Baseball America, who said that Florida has a terrific class coming into Gainesville. Again, good coaching.
First year coaches especially have a lot on their collective plates and Sully has told us that the area of concern is pitching. He wasn’t joking either. The Gators have 11 pitchers on their roster. The recent loss of left hander Kevin Chapman leaves a big void on the squad. Quality lefthanders are awfully hard to come by and last season proved that Chapman was a talented young pitcher.
Currently the Gators (8-2) have a team ERA of 3.03. Opponents are batting .259 against them. The Gators have used 12 pitchers — four of them (Toledo, Barnes, Lawler, and Matt den Dekker) are pitching for the first time at the collegiate level. Two others, Tony Davis and Clint Franklin, pitched less than 18 innings each through 59 games last season.
Seven of their ten games were against less than average competition. And obviously, they didn’t fare nearly as well against Miami, which is ranked sixth in the USA Today/ESPN Poll and eighth in the Baseball America Poll. Still, I think that overall things are better than expected. Half of the staff has very little to zero collegiate experience and there was no returning ace from last year’s roster. If the Florida staff can continue to improve the group, things might go on better than expected.
One through Four
The Gators are getting solid production from leadoff hitter Avery Barnes (.438) and three hitter Cole Figueroa (.351). Two hitter Matt den Dekker (.310) is starting to swing the bat much better after missing the Siena series. We’re still waiting for clean-up hitter Brandon McArthur (.270) to consistently perform offensively.
Collectively, the group managed only seven hits through three games in the Miami series and Figueroa picked up three of those hits. O’Sullivan has since juggled the line-up a bit and added the red hot Adams to the number two spot. He has also utilized Clayton Pisani near the top of the order. And if Townsend heats up, he could find himself in the top four. The Gators simply have to get better production from the top of the order against good pitching.
With the exception of the first two games of the Miami series, the Florida defense has looked very good. The Gators committed seven of their 12 errors in those two games in Coral Gables. If Pisani struggles at second base or Barnes in left field, Adams is the first player called upon and he has committed only one error in 24 chances. Heck, Adams could even see action at third base if Townsend loses his focus at third base, and Adams and Freshcorn could see some time there too.
Four games before conference play begins and thus far things look pretty good for the Gators. If they can stay healthy and improve- who knows? We should get an idea of just how they stack up by the end of March, after series against Auburn, Ole Miss, and LSU.