The Florida baseball team takes on in-state rival Jacksonville (7-10), on Tuesday before taking to the road for a big weekend series against ninth ranked Texas A&M (15-1). The Gators (9-6) appear to be taking shape as conference play begins on March 16th.
Fresh off of their weekend sweep of the George Washington University Colonials, the Gators have added a couple of names to a mix that head coach Pat McMahon will mold into a formidable lineup before the first pitch is thrown against Mississippi State.
The pre-season has been a prelude to what will probably occur for much of the early conference schedule- a learning experience. Second ranked Florida State (17-0) tagged the Gators with their most lopsided loss. A ninth inning rally saw them take a game against then nationally ranked South Florida (1-3) in Tampa. They took two of three from 15th ranked Miami (9-5) giving them a 3-2 record against ranked teams.
What to like: The fact that several of the young players have demonstrated notable improvement, with a couple of those players establishing significant improvement. Depth can be found at almost any position.
There is talent, depth, and some experience among the starters and the bullpen. The starting pitching has gotten better among right handers Bryan Augenstein and Billy Bullock.
The bullpen had been the Gators most reliable group to date. However, they haven’t been as consistent of late. The Florida pitching staff have has walked only 31 opponents in 135 innings pitched, which is second best in the conference.
LaPorta is back. The left side of the Florida infield has improved over last season, but must continue to improve defensively. The defensive play of Matt den Dekker and Jonathan Pigott appears to be very good. Austin Pride, Bryson Barber, and Avery Barnes have some experience and can help out defensively as well.
The Gators are striking out just 5.8 times per contest. Just, you say? The past two seasons, Florida has averaged 7.25 (2005) and 6.82 (2006) strikeouts per game. The Southeastern Conference’s best in category is Ole Miss at 3.3 times per game. Arkansas’ and LSU are tied for the leagues’ worst at 7 times per contest.
Areas of Improvement: Plenty. It’s a young team with oftentimes eight new starters among the nine that take the field. Obviously, there are numerous improvements that require their attention. However, they have the talent and should get better, much better. Ideally, they’ll each progress and the team will become formidable when conference play begins.
The strikeout to walk ratio is not where the Florida staff wants it (105/31). Southpaw Southpaw Stephen Locke has the arm. He must work to develop his confidence and bear down consistently. Thus far it has only come in moments.
Coming back has been difficult for the Gators thus far. That’s not to say they’re quitters. However, their record when trailing after six innings is 1-6. They picked up that critical first comeback victory last week against South Florida on the road. Hopefully, when trailing they’ll continue the trend started in Tampa.
Greatest concerns: Priority one is addressing the free passes. The Gators have allowed 26 unearned runs thus far. That is by far the worst in the conference. Yes, the young Gators have amassed 28 errors, worst in the Southeastern Conference.
This team has to grow up fast. Very fast. The level of competition will increase dramatically once conference play begins. Florida travels to 13th ranked Auburn (13-2) at the end of March. In mid-April the Gators travel to Fayetteville to play 11th ranked Arkansas (10-5).
Top ranked Vanderbilt (14-0) is joined by a pair of hard charging Eastern Division foes- fourth ranked South Carolina (10-1) and 18th ranked Kentucky (12-0) in the Collegiate Baseball poll. Toss in another contest against second ranked Florida State (17-0) and the young Gators will play one-third of the teams ranked among the Top 18 in the country before the end of April. That’s brutal.
The Gators have a nice blend at the position. Unfortunately, it isn’t a one man show. Sophomore Cody Neer (.283) and reserve Dustin Bamberg (.267) have some pop at the plate. Both have seen time as a designated hitter or pinch hitter. However, opponents have proven to be very successful running the bases on Neer. Freshman Hampton Tignor brings solid defensive skills to the unit having thrown out the only runner to try and steal against him. However, has struggled a bit at the plate. Tignor (.353) found his zone against the Colonials this weekend with a 5 for 7 (.714) offensive onslaught. He entered the contest hitting only .100. Hopefully, Tignor’s confidence will continue against JU on Tuesday night.
Cody Neer…Improving at the plate and should provide the Gators with a strong bat. He must improve defensively if he has any desire to lock down the starter’s role.
Reserves: Hampton Tignor and Dustin Bamberg…Tignor arrived at Florida from Sarasota with a resume built on strong defensive skills. The freshman played rather nervously in his first start of the season against VMI, allowing two passed balls. He played much better defensively against Miami and against GWU. Needs to improve his offensive game. Bamberg is batting .267 and has chalked up six RBI’s in just 15 plate appearances.
Outlook: Because of his defensive skills, Tignor has the best opportunity to lock down the position as the starter. He needs to impress with every opportunity at the plate though or he should expect to rotate in the lineup. Neer and Bamberg swing good bats, but will have a more difficult time improving their defensive skills. Teams will have success running on Neer.
Matt LaPorta…Leads the team in most offensive categories including batting average (.429), home runs (4), RBI’s (13), and total bases (33). His stellar defensive play has always been underrated.
Reserves: Austin Pride and Bryson Barber…Both players are perfectly capable of playing the position defensively. And moving them around to get the righty/lefty match-up makes it possible to McMahon to make necessary adjustments.
Outlook: What’s not to like? LaPorta earned the title “The King”. He can drive the ball a mile and is an underrated defensive player. Having Pride and Barber provides solid depth in a position where depth is not difficult to come by.
Cole Figueroa..The freshman from Tallahassee is clicking on all cylinders. He improved dramatically in the final two games against Miami going a combined 4 for 10 without a strikeout. The number two hitter putting the ball into play behind Townsend and in front of LaPorta bodes well for the Gators. He has been outstanding in the field too. Very much improved.
Reserve: Avery Barnes, Clayton Pisani?, possibly Jon Townsend…The sophomore has been seeing most of his time in the outfield. With Figueroa playing so well, that isn’t likely to change either. Pisani? Perhaps Townsend can play on the right side?
Outlook: The only way Figueroa loses this position is if he impresses at shortstop and is moved to improve the Florida defense.
Jon Townsend…Aggressive, confident, and experienced. Townsend has very good offensive skills and provides a tremendous boost hitting from the leadoff position. He has not settled in defensively as of yet. The word on Townsend is that he has been able to adapt and adjust at every stop in his career. He must impress defensively now.
Reserve: Cole Figueroa…He played the position in high school and figures to be solid in the position.
Outlook: If Townsend continues to struggle defensively, don’t be surprised to see Figueroa get a more in-depth look. Townsend is far too important offensively to sit though. Possibly he could get a look elsewhere.
Clayton Pisani…He entered the GWU series with an improved .314 average. However, while most of the rest of the team were driving their numbers up, Pisani went 0 for 8 and currently checks in at .256. Hopefully, the slump will be a short one. Pisani has made four errors in 36 chances, which is better than what the Gators have experienced in a couple of years.
Reserve: Austin Pride…He played the position last Sunday and looked pretty comfortable over there. He had two assists, a put out, and made a late innings error when the Gators were up 16-1. He has to play a more prominent role in the lineup be it, at DH, third base, or in the outfield. Swings a big bat.
Outlook: If Pisani continues to play at the level he had recently demonstrated before the GWU series, he could be the best player Florida has had at third base in at least a couple of years.
Chris Petrie, Matt den Dekker, Avery Barnes Brian Leclerc, or Jonathan Pigott…Petrie continues to improve at the plate. He is now hitting .303 on the season, raising his average from .208 before the GWU series. He has played error free baseball in 11 chances. Den Dekker is a stellar defensive player with some pop in his bat. He is not hitting for average (.253), but you can see that there is something special about this kid. Barnes has been playing very well of late. He entered the GWU series with a .296 average and feasted on their staff. He currently sports a .350 average. He has made two errors in 35 chances. Barnes and Pride are two players the Gators need at their best to compete in this schedule. Leclerc has seriously struggled and basically lost his starting role in right field. He is in the rotation, but could have nailed the position down with a good start to the season. Obviously, McMahon will provide opportunities in hopes that he can get his offensive game back in the groove. Leclerc has struggled throughout his career to consistently provide solid defense. Defensively, Pigott has been impressive in his limited opportunities. He has yet to come around offensively hitting at a .183 clip. If he can generate some offensive with his defensive skills, look out.
Outlook: I really think that den Dekker is the player who, if he improves his play offensively will serve as the catalyst for the Florida baseball team. Currently the Gators can count on LaPorta, Townsend, and Figueroa for offensive production. They have several other players who I believe will step up from time to time. If they can get den Dekker consistent- it will add another potential long ball scoring threat and some speed on the bases. If he continues to improve, den Dekker is the one absolute in center field.
Our next preview will address the pitching.