Gator Baseball Returns to the Practice Field

After reaching the College World Series last season for the first time since 2005, the Gators are beginning preparations for a return in 2011. The first step came in a return to the practice field, which happened over the weekend. Expectations will be high when the season begins in February, as the Gators will likely begin the season in the top three of the polls.

"We mentioned it in our first meeting about winning a national championship, but there are a lot of things that have to happen between now and Omaha next year," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We've always taken the approach of getting better in the fall before we think about the last game of the year. Our players are mature enough to understand they want to put themselves in a position to win a national championship."

The maturation of a veteran team must continue this fall. The Gators ran into problems in postseason play last year as they tried to fit the best bats into the lineup without giving away much on defense. It was a struggle, especially at the corner infield positions.

Austin Maddox was forced into third base after playing catcher and first base throughout the offseason. His bat earned him SEC Freshman of the Year honors, batting .333 with 17 home runs and 72 RBIs.

The glove struggled, though. He led the team with 12 errors in 202 chances.

"We threw him at third base midway through the year, and he didn't get many reps before that," O'Sullivan said. "We're going to try to find the best combinations this fall."

Maddox could see time at first base again this year. The Gators will continue to experiment with Preston Tucker in right field to see if it allows more bats to get in the lineup.

"Maddox looks a lot better taking ground balls," O'Sullivan said. "He's in much better shape and in better position to play that third base position a lot better than last year."

Utility player Brian Johnson will see time this fall at first base. He hit .405 with four home runs and 21 RBI in one-third of the at-bats he would have received if Johnson were in the lineup for every game. He will be in the lineup from day one this season.

Johnson also won't pitch much this fall after throwing for Team USA over the summer. He is expected to be in the running for the Friday night starter.

If the Gators decide to use Tucker in the outfield, Maddox at first and Johnson as the designated hitter, third base is wide open. Santa Fe Community College transfer Jeff Moyer and Miami-Dade transfer Vickash Ramjit will be in the mix for the job. Ramjit played the 2009 season as a freshman at Miami, hitting .292 with three doubles and six RBI in 48 at-bats. He didn't make an error in 95 chances.

Freshman third baseman Zack Powers has made a strong impression during his time on campus. The Armwood High School product played shortstop in high school, but he is a perfect fit for third base if his 6-3, 190-pound frame continues to fill out.

"He had a very good high school career," O'Sullivan said. "He's a left-handed swinger with a strong enough arm to play third. The thing you like more than anything else is you have a chance to add to his body. There's no telling how big or strong he can get, but he's got that prototypical lanky body that, if it fills out like we hope, he's got a chance to be really good."

The outfield goes into the fall without any set starters but plenty of experience returns. Along with the returning players, Bryson Smith is also expected to see playing time in the outfield.

Left field was a platoon last season between Tyler Thompson and Daniel Pigott. The left-handed Thompson started against right-handed pitchers, and the right-handed Pigott started against left-handed pitchers.

In a perfect world, O'Sullivan doesn't want to do that. He would rather see one player earn the job.

"You'd like one of those guys to win a job and take that next jump," O'Sullivan said. "I don't think any coach feels good about platooning any position. I'm hoping one of those guys jumps up and grabs it."

Kamm Washington is expected to take over in center field for Matt den Dekker, who was a fifth round pick of the New York Mets. Washington hit .308 with one home run in 65 at-bats last season before he crashed into the wall at Tennessee, tearing his hamstring and ending his season.

Washington is cleared to participate in every part of practice except running the bases, which he will begin to do at some point in the fall.

"He's one of the guys we're looking at in center field," O'Sullivan said. "Kamm is one that we're hoping takes a jump this fall and wins a job."

The issues on the mound are only from a lack of bullpen pitchers who are experienced in their role. Closer Kevin Chapman and right-hander Jeff Barfield are the only two pitchers gone who threw more than 15 innings. The Gators return pitchers that threw 83.3% of their innings last season.

However, O'Sullivan still wants to see improvements. The depth on last year's staff was enough, but he knows it's impossible to predict injuries and players who might not pitch up to expectations.

"It seems like you go into every year thinking you have enough pitching, and at the end of the year you're wishing you had another arm," O'Sullivan said. "We certainly feel good about our pitching. It's a nice balance between left-handers and right-handers. If everyone pitches up to their capability, this has a chance to be a really good staff."

Before the August 16 deadline for draft picks to sign professionally or attend school, the Gators had four returning starting pitchers with plenty of experience. When that deadline passed, No. 9 overall pick Karsten Whitson would join the stable of arms.

He turned down a reported $2.1 million from the San Diego Padres, instead electing to attend Florida and pitch for the Gators.

His mid-90s fastball and devastating low-80s slider gives the Gators another piece to the pitching staff.

"He fits right in," O'Sullivan said. "He's still an 18-year-old kid. He's got a lot of talent and ability. He's not here for any other reason than to help Florida win a national championship. He's a team guy with a great personality."

Brian Johnson (6-4, 4.03), Alex Panteliodis (11-3, 3.51), Hudson Randall (8-4, 3.24) and Tommy Toledo (3-2, 4.39) all return as capable starting pitchers. Four pitchers battling for three weekend spots would have been an intense competition by itself. When Whitson decided to come to campus, the competition only increased.

"The guys know when they look around the locker room that there is competition," O'Sullivan said. "Everybody is handling it well. There's no better one thing for a team than inner-team competition. It keeps everyone on their toes, and you get the best effort every day."

The main goal of the fall will come in the bullpen. Florida lost its closer and right-handed set-up man, and those roles need to be filled. Nick Maronde, Anthony DeSclafani, Paco Rodriguez and Greg Larson are early names that will be looked at to close.

The answer might not come right away. Chapman was dominant last season for the Gators, posting a 3-0 record with a 1.62 ERA, while striking out 44 hitters in 43.2 innings. He didn't even start the season as the closer.

"We had no idea at this time last year that Kevin Chapman would end up being our closer," O'Sullivan said. "You never know when that light will go on. Even when we started the season, Kevin wasn't penciled in as our closer. We've got time to figure it out."

Maronde and DeSclafani were counted on for big roles last season, but they both stumbled. After putting up solid freshmen seasons in 2009, Maronde struggled with control and DeSclafani was hit hard.

Maronde walked 24 hitters in 26.1 innings, while also striking out 37. DeSclafani allowed 60 hits in 40.1 innings.

Despite their struggles, each pitcher thrived over the summer in the Cape Cod League, the best collegiate baseball wood bat league in the country.

Both players seemed to turn things around over the summer, and their bullpen sessions in the fall have the head coach believing the two will be productive this season.

"They've looked sharp in their bullpens," O'Sullivan said. "For whatever reason, they had an off year last season. But both of those kids have great attitudes and certainly look like they're back on track right now."

Besides Whitson, O'Sullivan pointed out three other freshmen pitchers who are throwing well. Keenan Kish has been "extremely sharp." O'Sullivan pointed out his "workman-like attitude" as a reason he will be successful.

Left-hander Daniel Gibson throws in the low-90s "with a really good breaking ball." Right-hander Jonathan Crawford has "as good of off-speed stuff as anyone on the team."

It's too early to assume roles for the freshmen, but they will be involved this spring.
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