To winner goes a trip to Omaha

The feeling around the Florida baseball facilities this week before hosting the NCAA Super Regional couldn’t be more different from last year.

Last season, coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s Gators felt scrambled. They were doing their best to prepare for Southern Mississippi, but a feeling of uncertainty remained. Florida was unfamiliar with the Golden Eagles, the No. 3 seed in the Atlanta Regional that upset Georgia Tech.

It was O’Sullivan’s first Super Regional as a head coach. He wasn’t comfortable with the knowledge he had for the Southern Miss hitters and pitchers.

But more than anything, something just didn’t feel right.

“From a coaching standpoint, I feel a lot more relaxed this year than I did,” O’Sullivan said. “Last year, it just felt like everything was rushed. We didn’t know anything about Southern Miss and our pitching wasn’t quite as stable as it is this year. We got hot at the end (of the regular season). I felt rushed and that everything was cramped in.”

This week, the Florida players have been relaxed and comfortable. Part of it has to do with the Gators playing an instate rival with whom they are quite familiar—the Miami Hurricanes—but there also seems to be a new drive that has fueled this team since the middle of the year. Their youth—the roster features 21 freshmen and sophomores—could have served as an excuse for inconsistencies, but instead, the freshmen have been some of the most consistent players on the team.

“This year, I feel a lot more relaxed,” O’Sullivan said. “We know what to expect. You try to learn from past experiences and take them to next year. (It’s more) focused, certainly not nonchalant. We’re more focused with more confidence. By no means are we carefree and careless. We’re focused and ready for the task at hand.”

The Gators (45-15) and Hurricanes (43-18) will battle for the second time this season. Earlier in March, Florida took two of three from Miami at Alex Rodriguez Stadium in Coral Gables. This time, in the best-of-three Super Regional, one of eight around the country, a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. is on the line. Florida hasn’t been there since 2005 when it lost to Texas in the championship series. Miami last made it to Omaha in 2008.

That series back in March seems such a long time ago. Now, both teams are playing their best baseball of the year.

One key change in head coach Jim Morris’ lineup has come at the top. Center fielder Zeke DeVoss (.259 batting average, 9 home runs, 33 runs batted in) was the leadoff hitter when the teams played in March, but he has since moved to the bottom of the lineup. Frankie Ratcliff (.277, 6, 29) is now the leadoff hitter, playing second base.

Scott Lawson (.303, 9, 46) moved from second to first base. Rony Rodriguez and Ryan Perry were splitting playing time at first base, but neither took hold of the position, forcing Miami to make defensive changes. It also inserted more speed as Ratcliff has stolen 13 bases. DeVoss and shortstop Stephen Perez are tied for the team lead with 24 each.

The Hurricanes start three or four freshmen in their lineup, while the Gators start four or five, depending on the opponents’ pitcher. In the eyes of O’Sullivan, the main difference in the two teams between now and their first series comes in the experience each team’s freshmen have gained.

“The young guys in their lineup now have 200 at-bats under their belt,” O’Sullivan said. ”It’s the same for us. The experience factor is probably the biggest thing as far as how they’re different now than before.”

Catcher Yasmani Grandal is the key to the Miami offense. The 12th overall selection by the Cincinnati Reds in Monday’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Grandal, a switch-hitter, is batting .411 with 14 home runs and 58 RBI. He boasts a .729 slugging percentage and a .538 on-base percentage. But earlier this season, Grandal went 1-for-10 with two walks against Florida.

“He’s a switch-hitting catcher with size and power,” O’Sullivan said. “They don’t grow on trees. Catching is one of the hardest positions to recruit and scout professionally because there’s not a lot of them. He’s also one of their team leaders vocally.”

Defensively, Grandal has thrown out 15 of 32 runners attempting to steal. However, seven of those 17 stolen bases Miami has allowed were by the Gators.

The Hurricanes have scored at least seven runs in their last eight games. As hot as their offense has been, there is an identity crisis on the pitching staff. The only constant is ace Chris Hernandez. The junior left-hander is 10-3 with a 2.77 ERA. In 97.1 innings pitched this year, Hernandez has struck out 106 batters and allowed opposing hitters to bat only .229.

Eric Erickson was Miami’s second-best starting pitcher starting the year, but he wasn’t at full strength after missing the 2009 season with Tommy John surgery. He went 4-1 with a 2.52 ERA this year but he hasn’t pitched since prior to the ACC Tournament because of some stiffness in his arm. That has forced Morris to piece together a rotation, and he’s keeping that a secret.

O’Sullivan wasn’t any more forthcoming, saying Thursday that either sophomore left-hander Alex Panteliodis (10-2, 3.39 ERA) or freshman right-hander Hudson Randall (8-3, 2.97 ERA) in Friday’s opening game at 7 p.m. When it was Miami’s turn to meet the press, Morris asked whether Florida had announced its starting rotation before he announced his. When he was told that Florida wasn’t sure, Morris decided not to announce his rotation.

“Then I don’t guess we need to either,” Morris quipped. “We’re either going to throw a left-hander or a right-hander. I’m not going to share and announce our rotation if they don’t. I know what we’re doing.”

Morris did say that Hernandez would not start on Friday. He pitched on Saturday of the Coral Gables Regional and then threw 40 pitches in two innings on Tuesday in the 10-3 clinching victory against Texas A&M. Although Morris wouldn’t confirm who will start on the mound Friday, it will likely be either Jason Santana (5-3, 5.71 ERA) or David Gutierrez (5-2, 5.12 ERA). Freshman right-hander Eric Whaley (5-1, 4.28 ERA) could also get a start this weekend.

The Miami bullpen started the season with Gutierrez as the closer, but the injury to Erickson has forced him into the starting rotation. Left-hander Daniel Miranda (5-2, 3.35 ERA) is the closest thing the Hurricanes have to a closer, but even he has struggled at times. Gutierrez and Miranda each have five saves this season.

While the Hurricanes have been unable to find a consistent closer, their middle relief has been good. E.J. Encinosa (1-1, 2.20 ERA) was named a Freshman All-American, recording 61 strikeouts in 49 innings this year. Left-hander Sam Robinson (1-0, 1.27 ERA) is Miami’s situational left-handed pitcher, while Taylor Wulf (0-2, 1.72 ERA) and Travis Miller (1-1, 2.76 ERA) have been dependable middle relievers.

”Our bullpen overall has been pretty good,” Morris said. “We’ve had some struggles but everybody does. We’ve had a lot of guys in the bullpen get us late in the game and give us a chance to win.”

Defensively is where the teams might be the most different. Florida boasts a .978 fielding percentage and have been among the top two teams in the SEC for most of the season. Miami, meanwhile, has a .969 fielding percentage. Third baseman Harold Martinez has struggled the most for the Hurricanes. He currently has a .876 fielding percentage, making 21 errors on the year.

With all that is on the line this weekend, the Gators aren’t looking ahead. The team knows it is two wins away from playing in the College World Series, somewhere no player on the Florida roster has ever been.

What would a trip to Omaha mean?

“The world,” Tucker said. “You see guys in the pros talking that their most memorable baseball moment was in the College World Series. I can’t imagine that. We’ve got to beat Miami two-out-of-three, but to get to the College World Series, it would be a great feeling.”

MARCH 5-7 REWIND: The trip to Coral Gables was the first big road series for O’Sullivan’s young team and it grew up in a hurry. Florida won the opener, 7-1, before Miami came back for a 9-6 victory on Saturday. The Gators then prevailed on Sunday, winning 4-2.

In the Friday game, sophomore left-hander Alex Panteliodis went 5.2 innings, allowing one run and recording eight strikeouts, a career high. Nick Maronde came out of the bullpen and struck out seven Miami hitters in 3.2 innings of work. Panteliodis and Maronde combined to allow two hits in the game.

Florida’s offense came in two innings. Two-run singles by Josh Adams and Austin Maddox gave Florida a 4-0 lead in the third inning. Miami got on the board with a run in the sixth inning, but Florida pulled away in the eighth when a pitch hit Nolan Fontana with the bases loaded, and Mike Zunino followed with a two-run single, pushing the lead to 7-1.

The Hurricanes evened the series the next day when their bats woke up. Freshman Brian Johnson started on the mound for the Gators, but he was in and out of trouble all night, lasting only 4.2 innings, giving up five runs, although only two were earned.

A Matt den Dekker and Tyler Thompson RBI single combined with a Maddox sacrifice fly to give Florida a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning. Miami responded in the bottom of the inning, using a Scott Lawson two-run triple to take the lead back. Nathan Melendres hit a three-run home run in the sixth inning, pushing Miami’s lead to 8-3. Bryson Smith hit a three-run home run for the Gators in the seventh inning to pull Florida within two runs, but Chris Pelaez’s RBI double moved the Miami lead to 9-6 and the Hurricanes never looked back.

The Florida pitching clinched the series. Starting pitcher Tommy Toledo went five innings, allowing two runs (one earned) and striking out four. Smith gave the Gators a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning with his second three-run home run in as many games.

Kevin Chapman came in to start the sixth inning and recorded a four-inning save. He only struck out two hitters, but he allowed only one base runner on a single by Pelaez. Chapman sat in the mid-90s with his fastball during this outing, and this is when he was first seen as a high draft pick, eventually helping him be selected by the Kansas City Royals in the fourth round of the draft Tuesday.


SUPER REGIONALS / Best-of-3 series / Campus sites / Friday-Monday, June 11-14, 2010

Gainesville / McKethan Stadium / Host: University of Florida

Friday, June 11: Miami, Fla. (43-18) vs. Florida (45-15), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Saturday, June 12: Florida vs. Miami (Fla.), 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Sunday, June 13 (if necessary): Miami (Fla.) vs. Florida, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Los Angeles / Jackie Robinson Stadium / Host: UCLA

Friday, June 11: Cal State Fullerton (45-16) vs. UCLA (46-13), 10:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Saturday, June 12: UCLA vs. Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Sunday, June 13 (if necessary): Cal State Fullerton vs. UCLA, 10 p.m. (ESPN2)

Tallahassee / Dick Howser Stadium / Host: Florida State University

Friday, June 11: Vanderbilt (45-18) vs. Florida State (45-17), 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

Saturday, June 12: Florida State vs. Vanderbilt, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Sunday, June 13 (if necessary): Vanderbilt vs. Florida State, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Austin, Texas / UFCU Disch-Falk Field / Host: University of Texas

Friday, June 11: Texas Christian (49-11) vs. Texas (49-11), 3 p.m. (ESPN2)

Saturday, June 12: Texas vs. Texas Christian, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Sunday, June 13 (if necessary): Texas Christian vs. Texas, 4 p.m. (ESPN)

Myrtle Beach, S.C. / BB&T Coastal Field / Host: Coastal Carolina University

Saturday, June 12: South Carolina (46-15) vs. Coastal Carolina (55-8), 12 p.m. (ESPNU)

Sunday, June 13: Coastal Carolina vs. South Carolina, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Monday, June 14 (if necessary): South Carolina vs. Coastal Carolina, 1 or 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Charlottesville, Va. / Davenport Field / Host: University of Virginia

Saturday, June 12: Oklahoma (47-15) vs. Virginia (50-12), 3 p.m. (ESPNU)

Sunday, June 13: Virginia vs. Oklahoma, 4 p.m. (ESPN)

Monday, June 14 (if necessary): Oklahoma vs. Virginia, 1 or 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Clemson, S.C. / Kingsmore Stadium / Host: Clemson University

Saturday, June 12: Alabama (41-23) vs. Clemson (41-22), 6 p.m. (ESPNU)

Sunday, June 13: Clemson vs. Alabama, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Monday, June 14 (if necessary): Alabama vs. Clemson, 1 or 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Tempe, Ariz. / Packard Stadium / Host: Arizona State University

Saturday, June 12: Arkansas (43-19) vs. Arizona State (50-8), 9 p.m. (ESPNU)

Sunday, June 13: Arizona State vs. Arkansas, 10 p.m. (ESPN2)

Monday, June 14 (if necessary): Arkansas vs. Arizona State, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

COLLEGE WORLD SERIES / Rosenblatt Stadium / Omaha, Neb. / June 19-30, 2010