Gator Baseball Starts Season at No. 1

The Gators have already begun their assault on the program's record books, and the season is still three weeks away from opening day. On Thursday, Baseball America ranked Florida as its Preseason No. 1 team for the first time in program history.

Baseball America writers explained that the choice wasn't difficult. The depth of talent that Florida returns was too much for them to overlook.

The Gators return a lineup that loses only one starter after center fielder Matt den Dekker graduated. Kamm Washington will take over in center field after hitting .308 with one home run and six RBIs in limited action before a hamstring injury ended his 2010 season. He is now healthy and ready to take over.

The middle of the lineup will be anchored by the last two SEC Freshman of the Year recipients, third baseman Austin Maddox, (.333, 17, 72) and right fielder Preston Tucker (.331, 11, 49). Brian Johnson will provide another big power bat in the middle of the order after hitting .405 with four home runs and 21 RBIs in around one-third of the at bats as most regulars.

Baseball America said that Florida's double play combination of shortstop Nolan Fontana and second baseman Josh Adams "might be the nation's most reliable double-play tandem." Fontana boasted a .437 on-base percentage from the top of the order. Adams (.224, 9, 42) struggled last season with the bat, but all signs point towards him returning to the form that earned him First Team All-SEC recognition as a freshman and sophomore.

On the mound, the depth might be even more impressive. The rotation is anchored by Freshmen All-Americans in Hudson Randall and Johnson. Alex Panteliodis, who won 11 games last season, will battle with unsigned first round pick Karsten Whitson for the final spot in the weekend rotation.

It's the bullpen that Baseball America feels is the deepest part of Florida's team, as they believe "you won't find a deeper bullpen in college baseball than the one in Gainesville." Closer Kevin Chapman was a fourth round selection by the Kansas City Royals, but there are plenty of candidates to replace him.

Left-hander Steven Rodriguez looks to be the favorite to earn the job. Nick Maronde, Anthony DeSclafani, Justin Poovey, Greg Larson and Michael Heller are all returning arms that will see plenty of action out of the bullpen. Freshmen Daniel Gibson, Keenan Kish and Jonathan Crawford will see time on the mound, too.

The Gators open practice on Friday. The first game of the season is February 18 when they host USF at 7 p.m.

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