Gators face toughest weekend to date

For a chosen few, a blend of talent and timing hold the keys to getting noticed in Nashville. The Music City is an oasis for those interested in making a splash in the music scene through the numerous vehicles that provide them the opportunity to perform live.

The Florida baseball team are in need of splashing around a bit on Music Row. Two games behind the division race in the always competitive Southeastern Conference and facing a break in the conference schedule that finally doesn’t have them matched up against a nationally ranked opponent.

But first, they must take down their toughest foe yet- top ranked Vanderbilt.

The Gators have taken down Florida State and came within a pitch or two of taking a pair of pivotal conference series from South Carolina and Mississippi State. There is no time for a dress rehearsal- it’s time to perform. 

South Carolina is ranked third in the 2007 Men’s Baseball RPI rankings released earlier this week. The Gators have also faced three other teams ranked among the RPI top ten- including fourth raked Texas A&M, 7th ranked Mississippi State, and 10th ranked Arkansas.

Florida also faced #14 Florida State and actually took two of three from the Seminoles. However, they didn’t fare as well against the top ten. The Gators were swept by Texas A&M and Arkansas. With competition against some of the best in the land are the Gators ready to take to the road and face the best in the country?

The Commodores (36-8, 12-6) rank third conference wide in each of the major categories- batting average, earned run average, and fielding percentage.

Opponents have had the misfortune of trying to solve Vanderbilt starting pitchers David Price and Mike Minor. To date they’ve all come up empty.

Price (7-0) will get the Friday night start against the Gators. The lefty has compiled a 2.84 ERA. Price has generously allowed opponents to hit just .194 and allowed only one home run in 82.1 innings this season. He has struck out 122 batters this season- second best in the nation. He is the national leader with 13.3 strikeouts per game. The struck out a conference high 155 batters last season. The 6-6, 225 senior from Murfreesboro, Tennessee is on pace to eclipse Ben McDonald’s Southeastern Conference single season strikeout record of 202. 

He has walked only 21 batters. Furthermore, Price has thrown a conference high four complete games this season.

Minor (7-0) has allowed opponents to hit just .191, while posting a 2.00 ERA. He has fanned 55 batters in 54 inning pitched. Minor has given up just three home runs. Minor has walked only 12 this season.

The Sunday starter figures to be senior southpaw Stephen Shao (0-2, 6.04) or possibly Nick Christiani (5-2, 3.59). Shao got the start last Sunday against in-state rival Tennessee. He wasn’t very impressive though, allowing seven hits and five earned runs in just 2.2 innings.

Senior Casey Weathers closes the door. The hard throwing right hander nailed down each and every one of the Commodores victories over arch-rival Tennessee last weekend in Nashville. Weathers pitched 3.1 no hit innings in which he needed just 54 pitches to face 11 batters, fanning five of them. The California native did allow two walks, but picked up three saves preserving a pair of one-run victories as Vanderbilt swept the Vols.

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez leads the Commodores with a .362 average. He is tied for third in the league with 13 home runs and leads the conference with 123 total bases.

Right fielder Dominic de la Osa follows with a .346 average hitting from the third spot. He too has put up some pretty impressive power numbers with 11 home runs. De La Osa also has 12 stolen bases. 

Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin has been outstanding since taking the over as the Commodores skipper. Corbin has compiled an overall record of 180-103 (.636) in just his fifth season at the helm.

Florida coach Pat McMahon (225-133, .628) has made another change in his pitching rotation, trying to improve the Gators chances and it’s an all right handed edition. McMahon went to the bullpen for his Friday night starter.

Freshman right-hander Kyle Mullaney (2-0, 6.14) will get the ball first against the top ranked Commodores. Mullaney has fanned 15 batters in 22 innings of work. He has made 13 appearances this season. Junior RHP Bryan Augenstein (Sebastian, Fla.) (4-4, 5.96) gets his second Saturday start of the 2006 season. True freshman Billy Bullock (2-4, 4.56) will start the final game of the series for the Gators. Bullock handcuffed Kentucky for five innings last Sunday. The Tampa native allowed only one earned run and gave his offense a terrific opportunity to get started.

The Gators trail Vanderbilt by two games in the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference. A series win over Vanderbilt would not only give Florida an opportunity to make up some much needed ground, but potentially compete for a division title. The Gators final three SEC series are against trams with losing records- Alabama (8-10), LSU (8-9-1) and Tennessee (6-10).  Bama and Tennessee are both 4-6 in their last ten games, while LSU has improved with a 6-4 record during that span.

Unfortunately, Florida too is only 4-6. The sweep by the Razorbacks in Fayetteville two weeks ago crippled the Gators chances in the conference race. And now the Gators must relieve Commodore Vanderbilt from setting the coarse and steering the ship ever closer to Nashville. They must by take the weekend series and return to Gainesville helping their own cause.