The first twelve days of the Florida baseball season have provided head coach Pat McMahon with a few answers to the numerous questions that surrounded this team when the season began just a couple of weeks ago. Most of those answers are of the positive nature and should serve the Gators well this season.
One of the biggest questions concerned the middle of the defense, where one year ago Florida struggled at shortstop and second base in the wake of the sudden departure of Justin Tordi. The move of Adam Davis as a stop gap at the six spot didn’t prove effective. The Gators didn’t fare much better at second base.
“One of the very important things in baseball is to be as strong as you can in the middle of the field, be it behind the plate, be it at short and second, and be it in the centerfield,” McMahon said a few days before the season opener. “There’s a good chance that you’ll see all new players in each of those positions. So, how they respond and how they continue to develop is going to be very important as to how our club goes.”
Shortstop Jon Townsend, second baseman Cole Figueroa, catcher Cody Neer, and center fielder Matt den Dekker demonstrated their ability to make plays throughout the fall and winter practice sessions. Would they prove equally effective once the season began?
Well, the opening weekend against a decent VMI baseball team, an overrated Miami club, and an outstanding Florida State squad provided a pretty good first hand opportunity to see them in action. They haven’t disappointed. Sure, there were opening weekend jitters aplenty, adjustments for the weather, and an entirely new game day environment not to mention a game that is played at an entirely new speed. It is a work in progress.
Through the first eight games Jon Townsend has committed four errors in 36 chances for a fielding percentage of .889. Two of those errors occurred in the first two games of the season. The most critical need is to improve the relationship between Townsend and Clayton Pisani at third base. Last Sunday, Miami catcher Richard O’Brien hit a high bouncing ball in the gap that Pisani, hustling to his left, attempted to grab and throw on to first. However, he bobbled the ball because he knew that the fast approaching Townsend was right beside him. O’Brien later scored the Hurricanes ninth run.
However, there have been several plays that Townsend successfully completed to impress the thousands gathered at McKethan Stadium. The junior transfer from Saddleback Community College gets to the ball well and his release is pretty quick. The only struggles he has had have been getting the ball from the glove to his release hand and an errant throw.
His tremendous work ethic should serve him well. I don’t think there is any question that the defensive play at shortstop is in very capable hands and should improve as the London, Kentucky native becomes more acclimated to the speed of Southeastern Conference play.
Offensively, Townsend’s aggressive approach at the plate has obviously impressed head coach Pat McMahon, who has moved him from the eighth position to the leadoff spot. And why not?
Townsend is currently hitting second on the squad with a .389 average. He is second on the teams with 23 total bases and doubles with three. Townsend is tied for fourth on the squad with five RBI’s.
He was hitless in Sunday’s game against Miami- hours after being released from the hospital suffering a 102 fever. He did work the Hurricanes pitching for a couple of walks and was errorless.
The most improved Florida player since the opening weekend is second baseman Cole Figueroa. The true freshman from Tallahassee has made only two errors in 35 chances for a .943 fielding percentage. Figueroa and Townsend have been pretty impressive for a couple of new teammates turning the double play. That too should improve. It is especially helpful having a solid glove in Matt LaPorta at first base. In the Miami series, Figueroa handled a couple of balls that appeared to be going through the gap with relative ease. The gap on that right side won’t be as easy for teams to exploit with LaPorta and Figueroa manning their respective positions. He also demonstrated some serious hustle coming over to the first base bag on a bunt that saw the ball die between the mound and first base.
Offensively, the best attribute about Figueroa is performed using his own stats. In the Miami opener, he went 0-3 with an RBI, but struck out twice and left three men on base. In each of the following two games, the freshman went 2-5. He didn’t record a strikeout, nor did he leave a man stranded. He was seemingly not impressed with his performance in game one and picked himself up the rest of the series. Furthermore, he was probably the most impressive overall player on the Gators roster against second ranked Florida State, where he went 2-5 with a pair of runs scored. Is there any doubt that he and Townsend won’t be a difficult one-two tandem offensively hitting in front of LaPorta?
Sophomore Cody Neer had taken the early lead behind the plate. His offensive abilities are evident. Neer led the state with a .528 average as a senior at Orlando Edgewater. He hit only .154 in 26 at-bats in 2006. Neer started off the first series 3 of 13 with a home run and two RBI’s. He has since added another home run, two doubles, and three RBI’s as he heats up the Gators five spot. However, he struggled to find the hole against the Seminoles. He is currently hitting .267 with five strikeouts in 30 appearances at the plate.
Neer has made two errors, but has not suffered from passed balls. Defense is not Neer’s strong suit, as evidenced by Tuesday’s Florida State game. His continued defensive improvement will provide the best job security. Otherwise, you can count on seeing reserve Hampton Tignor, who brings a reputation that is polar opposite to that of Neer. Tignor has skills that are better suited for solid defense. The freshman must settle in and work on his offensive game if he hopes to secure a prominent role in the Gators season.
True freshman Matt den Dekker has fielded 17 balls with no errors. The speedy Ft. Lauderdale Westminster Academy graduate has played in some pretty high winds courtesy of a major cold front that blew through just in time to welcome the Miami Hurricanes to Gainesville. There were 10 chances for den Dekker in the series and he made each and every one of them. The winds had him quickly moving to adjust on a few of them, but the plays were made. He also has displayed the ability to hit the cut off man or throw on to the bag when the play calls for it. He has a good arm as well.
The left hander has some definite improvements to make in his offensive game. His worst performance at the plate occurred in the series finale against the ‘Canes when he went 0-3 with three strikeouts. One of the strong points about den Dekker is his eye. He seemingly has a good eye at the plate, generating five walks, which is tied for team lead with LaPorta. That sounds strange for a guy who is tied with fellow freshman Jonathan Pigott for the team high with seven strikeouts. But, it is true. Most of his strikeouts have been swinging.
He is currently batting .192 on the season with four RBI’s, including a double and home run.
It’s doubtful that McMahon would be willing to place a solid defender like den Dekker on the pine. However, if his offensive struggles continue, don’t be surprised if sophomore Avery Barnes gets an opportunity to see if he can nail down the spot. Barnes does not have the defensive skills of den Dekker. He already has one error in 14 chances. Barnes is currently hitting .273, below the team average of .302 Barnes has struck out three of the 11 times he has been at the plate. This is the only one of these positions where the defensive play is ahead of the offensive play.
Four new faces, two of them freshmen, occupy those all-important areas. Townsend and Figueroa are occupying steady ground and don’t appear to be losing any ground to immediate challengers. Neer and den Dekker will have to improve their play to hold off the competition. Thankfully, there is some depth, which allows McMahon and company the ability to make changes without taking away from other areas of the team. The center of the Florida defense too is a work in progress. However, it appears to be on a somewhat upward trend since the start of the season 12 days ago. And that should go a long way toward the improved fortunes of the Gators.