The success of the Florida baseball team in 2009 will depend on the leadership from the more experienced players. All-Southeastern Conference center fielder Matt den Dekker, third baseman Josh Adams and pitcher Patrick Keating all spent their offseasons putting themselves in a position to succeed but in different ways.
Den Dekker spent his summer on the 2008 USA National Team. The team is the most prestigious summer squad for players who will spend next season in college baseball. Team USA traveled to play games in The Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic.
“It was more than just baseball for me,” said junior den Dekker, who batted .333 with 55 runs, 48 RBI, nine doubles, two triples and eight home runs for the Gators. “I wasn’t used to other cultures like that. We got to see a lot of different people and cultures. It was something I’ll never forget.”
Now den Dekker and the Gators get to face some of his USA teammates – Tennessee’s Kentrail Davis, LSU’s Micah Gibbs, Vanderbilt’s Mike Minor and Auburn’s Hunter Morris – and den Dekker couldn’t be more excited.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “I made some great friends this summer. It’s going to make me want to beat them even more when we play them.”
The loss of shortstop Cole Figueroa from last year’s team means den Dekker will be asked to carry more of the offensive weight.
“We’re excited about it,” den Dekker said. “The whole outfield is back and we’re ready to improve on what we did last year. Cole being gone is a huge loss, for sure. Josh and I know we have to step up as well as everyone else.”
Den Dekker was the leader in the outfield last season, but now his role as leader in the clubhouse is beginning to expand.
“I’m an older guy now,” he said. “I’m trying to lead by example and vocally. It’s an exciting challenge.”
HUNGRY IN A DIFFERENT WAY: Josh Adams’ offseason was different. While den Dekker was oversees representing his country, Adams split his summer between Gainesville and his home in Jacksonville. His goal was pretty simple: Relax.
The Gators’ 2008 season ended with two losses in the Southeastern Conference tournament and two more at the NCAA Regional in Tallahassee, the last a 17-11 defeat at the hands of Florida State. Adams cramped up several times in that final loss, which left Florida 34-24, often stretching out on the grass of the infield while trainers assisted him.
“I went home after the season last year and just slept,” Adams said. “I don’t think I woke up before 2 o’clock every day. I’m trying to relay that to the freshmen now. It’s a long season that wears you down. That Florida State game is a perfect example of that.”
It called for immediate changes. Adams spent time running and in the weight room this offseason, but the workout routine was different. It was more to tone his body, to drop some unwanted pounds that kept him down last season.
“I’ve changed my diet,” the 5-10, 200-pound Adams said. “I lost about 20 pounds in the offseason. I had to lose some weight because I was too heavy last year. I’ve done a lot of mental preparation as well.”
Despite an outstanding freshman season – a .330 batting average, eight home runs and 51 RBI – Adams is still hungry, but in a different way. He has put last year’s accomplishments behind him, and all of his focus is now on the season opener.
Adams also knows he won’t be sneaking up on teams this year. As the preseason All-SEC selection at third base, pitchers won’t attack him the same way this season, and he’s anxious to see what they do.
“I expect everything different from last year,” Adams said. “Near the end of the year, pitchers started to figure me out a little bit and it showed. We have guys in the lineup with me that will force pitchers to pitch me differently. I really don’t know what to expect from pitchers this year. I’m preparing for everything.”
Adams has been pleasantly surprised by the freshmen pitchers who will see plenty of action this season.
“Anthony DeSclafani really sticks out in my mind,” Adams said. “He’ll come up to you if he’s having trouble with anything and just ask questions. I’m not even a pitcher and he asks me. These freshmen have all been very open to criticism. They came in with a goal to win and it’s easy to see. They bring something special to this team.”
The freshmen are important to the team’s success, and Adams likes what he sees. Overall, he thinks this team has a good chance to go far this season.
“We can go as far as we want to go,” Adams said. “It’s all up to us. There may be days when we aren’t playing well, but we can take this program as far as we want. We have the tools. It’s setting up for an unbelievable year.”
THE ACE OF THE STAFF: The mainstay of the pitching staff will remain the same this year. Senior Patrick Keating ended last season with an 8-1 record and 4.16 ERA, but the ERA is deceptively high after he admits he grew tired at the end of the year. Similar to Adams, Keating is focusing on toning his body to make sure he is ready for the grind of the college baseball season.
“We’ve been working really hard with preseason lifting and conditioning,” the 6-2, 215-pound right-hander said. “We are excited about getting out here to work and eventually get enough wins which will take us to Omaha.”
The idea of being the leader of the young pitching staff brings a smile to Keating’s face. He has paid his dues as a Gator and now leads a staff oozing with talent, no matter how young it may be.
“(Being a leader) comes with a lot of responsibility as well,” Keating said. “You have to take the young guys and help them along the way. They just have to get game experience. I’ve got it, so it makes sense that I help them along.”
Two pitchers who currently project in the weekend rotation with Keating are freshmen Nick Maronde and DeSclafani. Keating sees plenty of potential in their arms.
“They’re both very talented,” Keating said. “They really have good arms. Maronde is a lefty, and DeSclafani has a big arm for a righty. Talent-wise they’re as good as it gets. They’re both really competitive. I think they will be able to help us right away.”
If they do, the Gators’ baseball team could be headed to a successful season.