Florida Slump is Nothing New

The Gators know what's happening. They've hit the midseason slump that plagues every college baseball team at one point in the season. Florida had a 4-4 record on its eight-game road trip that ended with a 10-5 loss at North Florida on Tuesday. The results weren't what the Gators wanted, but they've been in this position in each of the last two years.

"Every year I've been here, we've gone through something like this," Florida catcher Mike Zunino said. "It's just about how you respond. Some older guys are stepping up and talking to younger guys to take them under their wings more.

"We just need to have a better all around effort sometimes, but there are always times in the season where you have to pull together as a team and try to get through it."

During the 2011 season, there was a 16-game stretch from March 25-April 20 where the Gators went 8-8. After that stretch, Florida ripped off seven straight wins and carried that momentum to tie for the regular season SEC Championship.

In 2010, there was a 17-game stretch from March 26-April 23 where the Gators went 9-8. After that stretch ended, Florida ran off a streak where it won 14 of its next 15 games and went on to win the SEC Championship with a young team.

These stretches aren't just unique to Florida (24-5/6-3 SEC).

Over the course of a 56-game regular season, it happens to every team in the country at one point or another.

"Every team is going to go through this kind of struggle," Florida right fielder Preston Tucker said. "We did it last year, and we've done it every year since I've been here. If you're not swinging the bat well or making pitches, it doesn't matter how talented your players are—you're not going to win a lot of ball games."

In the past two seasons, the rough patch started in late March. The Gators have currently lost three of their last four games, starting with a loss on March 30 at Ole Miss.

The key is that the struggles happen now.

"Every year, every team goes through something like this," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "It's every single year. It doesn't matter how talented you are or how much experience you have. This game is a humbling game, and you're not going to go 50-6 through the regular season. You're going to have stretches where you don't play your best.

"The key is to not have this stretch at the end of the year as you're going into tournament play. That's the key. This will make our team better. It's frustrating, and you don't want to go through it, but it does build character and puts you in a better place at the end of the year."

In the struggles during the 2010 and 2011 season, there was one common thread. The time frames of the average play included back-to-back SEC road series in the past two years. The Gators are coming off just that.

In 2010 and 2011, those two down periods both featured eight-game road trips. The Gators ended another eight-game road trip with Tuesday's loss at North Florida.

"The last two weeks have been tiresome," O'Sullivan said. "You go on the road and play South Carolina and there's 10,000 (in attendance). On a Tuesday game, you go to Jacksonville and there's 11,000. You go back on the road and play at Ole Miss where there's are 10,000, again.

"It has been challenging. It's a learning experience, but it's good to get back home again. I know the players are very excited to play back home again in front of the home crowd."

The road can wear a team out, even one with as much as experience as Florida. Constant bus rides, flights and hotels can take its toll on any team, regardless of how used to it the group has become.

Back at home, the Gators will have their normal routine. They have their own clubhouse to operate out of while knowing exactly where to be and what to eat for their pregame meal.

It may seem like small details, but any bit of comfort can help out a struggling team.

"It has been a while since we've been here, so it's going to be a nice, comforting feeling coming home," Zunino said.

When the series opens on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU, it won't have the look of the team's aces. The first game will feature Florida junior left-hander Brian Johnson (4-0, 3.29) against LSU sophomore right-hander Kurt McCune (1-3, 4.76).

McCune will return to the rotation after recently being moved to the bullpen to make room for freshman Aaron Nola (3-1, 3.18). Nolan will miss this weekend with shoulder pain.

McCune threw seven innings as a freshman against the Gators last season, allowing seven hits, two runs (one earned) and striking out four.

On Friday, LSU will throw ace Kevin Gausman (5-0, 2.27) likely against Florida right-hander Karsten Whitson (1-0, 4.05) at 7 p.m. Gausman has struck out 62 hitters in 47.2 innings, allowing 35 hits and 13 walks. Opponents are hitting .202 against Gausman this season.

The final game of the series will be Saturday at 4 p.m., just after the conclusion of the spring football game. Florida will send right-hander Hudson Randall (3-1, 3.56) to the mound against LSU sophomore right-hander Ryan Eades (4-1, 1.91).

"A lot of power arms—a lot of great arms in the pen and the starting rotation," Zunino said of the LSU rotation. "It's just one of those weekends where we've got to battle at the plate, see a lot of pitches and try to run some pitch counts up."

For Florida, the weekend will be about rebounding.

"I don't know if there's much you can do other than encourage and keep putting them out there," O'Sullivan said. "It's going to turn around for us. When that happens, I don't know, but hopefully it's this weekend."

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