Despite never playing a college game together, folks around McKethan Stadium already are raving about Florida’s middle-infield duo this season, which begins Feb. 15 with a three-game home series against Duke.
The Florida Gators were stingy a year ago with shortstop Nolan Fontana and second baseman Casey Turgeon backhanding hard grounders in the hole or knocking down high-hoppers up the middle to turn would-be base hits into putouts.
When Fontana signed with the Houston Astros after being selected in the second-round of last June’s draft, it left a gaping hole at shortstop, one of the key spots in the infield. It also meant the Gators would need to find another leadoff man to ignite the offense.
Enter Richie Martin.
The 6-foot, 180-pound true freshman from Brandon (Fla.) Bloomington High has big shoes to fill and has taken over Fontana’s on-field role since the day he arrived on UF’s campus. Martin’s one of those first-to-arrive-last-to-leave players who approaches the game like a professional.
Folks see him at the baseball facilities so often they wonder if he lives there. Apparently, he does leave for classes, though.
“He’s a very good player, very mature,” Florida sixth-year coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Friday. “He’s a civil engineering major and I think he only made one ‘B’ his first semester.
“He’s focused and up to this point he is our hardest worker.”
Hard work pays off. Martin smoothly glides across the infield to snare sharp ground balls or scoop up slow rollers. His hands and feet are lightening quick, which helps him combine with Turgeon to turn double plays with ease.
“I feel that he and Casey up the middle is as good a middle infield as you’re going to see at this level,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re going to throw him right in the fire and he’ll probably be leading off for us and playing short.
“They’re both (Martin and Turgeon) great kids. They work extremely hard together and we’re very fortunate to have both those guys in our program.
“I think they’ve got the chance to be one of the best, if not the best, middle infield combination in the country.”
At the plate, Martin displayed some pop during Friday’s practice by depositing a towering shot into the left-field bleachers. Most often, though, he smokes and slices line drives. He’s what baseball scouts describe as a “spray hitter” because of his ability to hit to all sides of the field.
Watching him in batting practice, the right-handed hitting Martin seems to have a knack for looping singles over the second baseman’s head and into short left-center field. He also has the tons of speed once he gets on base,
“He can really handle the bat as far as drag bunts and push bunts, he’s really, really advanced,” O’Sullivan said during an earlier interview. “He handles the bat as well as any young player we’ve had I think.
“When he gets on base, he’s very disruptive. He’s got great instincts. He might be one of those guys that we haven’t had here in a while that can steal 30-plus (bases) in a season. We just haven’t had that in a long time because those guys are hard to find.
“We’re probably going to give him the green light (to steal bases) as soon as we start the season.”
Turgeon played the role as pupil last season while the then-junior Fontana played teacher. Now, the roles are reversed and it’s Turgeon’s turn to return the favor by serving as Martin’s mentor.
By all accounts, Turgeon and Martin already have gelled on and off of the field, which will be instrumental in the duo working hand-in-hand all season.
“I’m trying to teach him everything I’ve got,” Turgeon said. “When he brings it out to the field Game 1, it’s going to be good.”