With Miami headed to the Gainesville Regional this weekend as the two-seed in Florida’s bracket, there’s a noticeable excitement in the fan base and around town as NCAA Regional play gets underway on Friday.
But for Florida, the focus isn’t on Miami.
In fact, in a lot of ways, it isn’t even on tomorrow’s opponent Manhattan, who the Gators will face at 4 p.m. on ESPNU.
“We’re kind of playing against ourselves,” junior right fielder Preston Tucker said. “If everyone plays to potential and the pitchers do their thing and the hitters score runs early we can succeed at this level and hopefully on to the Super Regionals and the World Series.”
Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan has done his best all year long to make sure his team focuses on the game at hand and doesn’t get caught looking ahead.
“That’s kind of what our theme’s been for the last few years,” O’Sullivan said. “Going into this week, our whole thought process is Manhattan. They’ve got a pitcher that’s won 10 games, they’ve got a senior-laden lineup, four of their top five hitters in the lineup are seniors, they’ve got experience. Our focus has been that – it hasn’t been game two on whoever we play.”
When the Gators take the field Friday for their opening game in the NCAA Regional, freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson (7-0, 2.53 ERA) will take the mound for Florida.
Whitson has been dominant for the Gators in his freshman campaign, racking up a team-high 74 strikeouts in 78.1 innings pitched.
He’ll go up against Manhattan ace John Soldinger (10-2, 2.34 ERA).
Soldinger was the Metro Atlantic Pitcher of the Year this season and was named to the 2011 MAAC All-Tournament team after pitching a six-strikeout complete game against Canisius on May 26.
“I think he’s very competitive and he’s taken on the role of their number one starter and delivered just about every time out,” O’Sullivan said of Soldinger. “I think he can pitch. Any time you can win 10 games, you’re not out there just throwing fastballs. I think he’s been able to throw two different types of breaking balls, he probably moves his fastball in and out.”
Florida has hit well of late, entering the Gainesville Regional with a lot of momentum after closing out the regular season by winning the overall and SEC Tournament titles.
O’Sullivan said Monday this is the hottest his team has ever been entering an NCAA Regional, and his team is just looking to sustain that momentum against the Jaspers.
“They’re excited. They’re confident. And they should be,” he said. “But the postseason is different … Baseball’s a different game. It takes one guy on the mound to change the whole perception of the game. We’re going to have to be at our best this weekend. If we play like we’re capable, we’ll be fine. If we don’t, then we could find ourselves in trouble.”
The Gators played one of their best stretches of baseball in the SEC Tournament at Hoover, hitting through the bottom part of the lineup and moving runners around with an aggressive mentality on the base paths.
Still, there are things O’Sullivan and his staff have worked on tweaking in the week of practice leading up the start of this weekend’s Gainesville Regional.
“We’ve had a good week of practice,” he said. “We’ve worked on some stuff that we needed to try to clean up a little bit. I think their frame of mind is good. I haven’t sensed any tightness or they’re not uptight. We’ll see what happens. We’ve just got to play. The bottom line is we’ve just got to play, and we’ve got to play to the best of our ability.
“I said this early on, it’s not who you’re playing it’s how you’re playing. If we play well, we have a chance. If we don’t, then obviously we’ll find ourselves on the losing end of things. I’ve kind of kept that approach. It’s about how we’re playing, not who we’re playing.”
The winner of Friday’s game between Florida and Manhattan will face the winner of Friday’s noon game between Miami and Jacksonville on Saturday at 4 p.m.
The loser will face the loser from the Friday noon game at noon on Saturday in an elimination game.
Miami will not pitch one of their top three starters against Jacksonville, saving them for a potential matchup against Florida on Saturday in the winner’s bracket. The Hurricanes will throw sophomore lefty Steven Ewing (7-2, 2.77 ERA), instead.
Jacksonville is expected to throw senior ace Matthew Tomshaw (8-3, 3.78 ERA). Tomshaw earned an 11-2 win over the Gators on May 17.
Regardless of how the Jacksonville, Miami game goes earlier in the day, Florida’s players insist their focus will only be on Manhattan and themselves.
“You see it all the time, upsets in the postseason,” sophomore Austin Maddox said. “Every team in the postseason is going to be good. We can’t let our guard down.”