Baseball opens SEC season vs. MSU

The Kevin Chapman who closes for the Gators this season isn’t one even the left-hander himself recognizes.

After throwing 11-1/3 innings last season, where he allowed 16 hits an three earned runs, Kevin Chapman has gone 11-2/3 innings this season without allowing a run. He has also mixed in ten strikeouts.

For a left-handed reliever that wasn’t counted on very heavily last season when the team struggled with pitching depth, his emergence this year has raised eyebrows from the stands to the scouts with radar guns.

Last season, Chapman was completely healthy, but he was only a year off Tommy John Surgery, which replaces the UCL in the pitcher’s elbow. Pitchers can come back and pitch around a year after the surgery, however they get more effective as they knock some of the rust off. He wasn’t heavily used last season because the Florida coaching staff knew the rust was still there.

They used him in non-pressure situations where he could work the rust off against live hitters. As is common with pitchers coming off the surgery, Chapman felt like he was over thinking his mechanics and pitching philosophy last year instead of cutting the ball loose like he used to.

“It was harder mentally for me to get back than just fully concentrating on attacking the hitter,” Chapman said. “This fall helped me out. It let me focus on attacking the hitter instead of making sure I do every little thing right.”

Tommy John Surgery is tough on any pitcher, but for Chapman, it wasn’t an immediate fix. He had the surgery in March 2008 after the doctor’s saw it as the only way to cure his elbow pain. It came after a successful freshman year, where Chapman went 2-1 with a 4.23 ERA while being used as a midweek starter and a reliever. He knew the long road to recovery that came with the surgery, but the junior left-hander went at it with a positive mindset.

However, there was a setback.

In September 2008, doctors were forced to go back into the elbow to take out a bone spur, adding a few extra months to an already lengthy recovery period.

Chapman would come to the field every day to go through his rehabilitation and see his teammates on the field for practice or preparing for a game. It was a difficult transition, from consistent contributor to observer, but Chapman learned lessons along the way.

“It was really frustrating, but I think it made me mentally stronger because I had to go through that,” Chapman said. “People say that you never really know what you have until you lose it. Well I lost it there for a little bit. It really helped me realize how much I’m blessed.”

A couple weeks ago, Chapman celebrated the two-year anniversary of the Tommy John Surgery. The celebration has lasted through the first month of the season and come at the expense of opposing hitters. After constantly hitting between 91-92 mph last season on the mound, he has now touched 95 mph multiple times an outing, with the most recent coming in a three-inning save over Florida State where he allowed only one base runner.

“The last 2-3 months, my velocity has been increasing a little bit every time,” Chapman said. “I’ve been healthy for a while now.”

The bad news for opposing hitters of the future is that Chapman has done most of his damage with one pitch. His fastball has overpowered opposing pitchers, who aren’t used to seeing a 6-4 left-hander throw in the mid-90s at the college level. But when he doesn’t overpower them, the movement on the fastball makes it almost impossible to hit.

“It’s almost like he has two pitches in one,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s not only a 92-95 mph fastball, but it moves half the distance of the plate. It gets off the barrel in a hurry. Guys cheat to the outer half, and they run out of barrel (on the bat) when the ball runs away from them.”

The fastball has been good enough that Chapman estimated that he has thrown “about 10% sliders.” Hitters see the fastball coming more often than not, and still can’t adjust to making solid contact.

“Until they starting hitting my fastball, I don’t know if there’s a point in throwing another pitch except every once in a while to keep them honest,” Chapman said. “There will be times when I have to throw my changeup and slider, but so far it’s been pretty a fastball.”

This weekend the Gators start SEC play with Mississippi State coming to town. Last year, the Gators took their young pitching staff on the road to start SEC play for a series at Arkansas and were swept in the process.

Starting conference play at home is a benefit for a team that will most likely start four newcomers to the team in the field on Friday night.

Sophomore left-hander Alex Panteliodis (4-0, 1.10) has developed into the Friday night starting pitcher for the Gators, and Bulldogs freshman right-hander Kendall Graveman (1-0, 3.78) will oppose him. First pitch Friday is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Freshman left-hander Brian Johnson (1-1, 5.52) will start Saturday’s game for the Gators in a 7 p.m. start. Mississippi State will start freshman right-hander Chris Stratton (2-2, 2.95).

Sunday’s series finale is still up in the air. Mississippi State will start sophomore left-hander Nick Routt (1-1, 7.27). Florida hasn’t decided on a starting pitcher yet, however it will be one of Hudson Randall (2-0, 4.42), Anthony DeSclafani (2-1, 4.11) or Steven Rodriguez (0-0, 1.08). First pitch Sunday is set for 1 p.m.

The key for the Florida pitching staff will be stopping Mississippi State first baseman and key power threat Connor Powers. He is batting .409 with eight home runs and 32 RBI on the season. His eight home runs are half of the team’s total this season.

“You identify the one guy in their lineup that you don’t want to have beat you,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s the guy. We’ll be careful with him with runners in scoring position, but like (Florida first baseman Preston) Tucker, at some point you have to pitch to him. We know he’s a really good hitter. He’s their guy.”

It’s a solid offense for the Bulldogs, but their young pitching staff has seen some trouble this season. The offense is also led by Cody Freeman (.370, 2, 11), Luke Adkins (.345, 1, 7) and Nick Vickerson (.343, 1, 6).

“They’re an older club,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve only got one freshman in the lineup (2b frost). They are young on the mound. They’re going to be well coached and able to swing the bat like John Cohen’s teams do.”

The Gators also hope to continue their solid defensive play. After they ranked 11th in the SEC last season with a .966 fielding percentage, the Gators currently lead the conference with a fielding percentage of .982. A large reason for the increased defensive success is what freshman Nolan Fontana has done at shortstop. The shortstop has played error-free baseball this season, even though he has started all 16 games and had 71 chances. The shortstop position committed 21 errors last season.