“I kind of feel like this has turned into a mind game,” Florida second baseman Josh Adams said. “When you go back to the dugout as a hitter, you start trying to think about how they pitched you. Whether they did well against you, you’ve got to figure out your game plan against them.
“It changes every time you play them because they find a new strength or a new weakness. Your game plan has to change every time you play them, and that’s the big thing that’s difficult when you play a team this many times.”
The tough part is finding a balance. The players don’t want to overanalyze how each was pitched because it could easily change in the next at-bat. Instead, they find patterns. Adams said some teams in the conference have pitched him the same during his four-year career. Some pitch backwards, throwing a heavy dose of off-speed pitches early in the count. Others try to get him out with a two-strike breaking ball in the dirt.
It’s these patterns that make the familiarity of six games against a team tough to have an impact. At this point in the season with veterans in the lineup for both teams, it’s not much of a secret how the other team will pitch them.
“You have to learn from what they’ve done in the past and what they’ve been successful against you in the past with,” Florida outfielder Daniel Pigott said. “They have no reason not to stick with it if that approach has had success against you in the past. You have to keep the mindset of judging how they’ve pitched you in the past and almost expect the same.”
The challenge for the Gators on Friday comes against All-American right-hander Sonny Gray (12-3, 2.12). The Oakland A’s drafted Gray with the No. 18 overall pick in the first round. Before his last start against North Carolina when he allowed three earned runs in just 4.2 innings, Gray has given up just two earned runs in his last three starts, combining for 19 innings.
Against the Tar Heels, Gray’s nerves got the best of him in the first game of the 2011 College World Series and the first game ever in TD Ameritrade Park. He walked a season-high five batters.
“He’s very competitive,” Pigott said. “He’s got good stuff, and we know he’s going to throw strikes. We’ll go up there with the mindset of looking for a pitch to hit, and we’ll drive it. You’ve got the hit the pitches he gives you that are good ones, because he won’t give you a lot of them.”
Gray threw the opener of a three-game conference series against Florida this season in Nashville. He allowed just two hits in six innings, giving up two runs (one earned) and four strikeouts. The game was postponed because of rain and eventually suspended until Saturday. Gray didn’t return to the mound when the game resumed, and Florida came back to record a 6-5 win.
The game plan for the Gators will be similar to earlier in the College World Series. They want to drive Gray’s pitch count up and get him out of the game.
“We want to get him out of the game as fast as possible,” Adams said. “If they want to keep him in and get his pitch count up, we’ll take advantage of that, too.”
Getting the starting pitcher out of the game against Vanderbilt isn’t as meaningful. The Commodores have four trusted bullpen arms with ERAs under 3.00, but their best bullpen arm recently might be Corey Williams (4.46).
“Their starter comes out, and another guy comes in who’s really good,” Adams said. “It’s just one guy to the next.”