Gators Searching for Second Wind

Florida players and coaches have felt like it was coming. After floundering through the month of April, the Gators won a weekend series at Kentucky and experienced a walk-off victory over North Florida on Tuesday. With just seven games left in the regular season, the confidence is starting to grow as No. 5 Florida prepares for the stretch run.

"This team feels good about itself," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We're two games out of first (in the SEC). We've put ourselves in position to where we thought we would be. We've just got two big series left.

"This week is a big week. We don't have to watch the scoreboard. If we do what we're capable of doing, we'll be there in the hunt at the end."

O'Sullivan believes the stress of a 9-9 April is behind the team. The bad stretch of play was caused by multiple aspects, but he believes "the (SEC) has a lot to do with" the ups and downs the Gators fought through.

This isn't the preferred way to go through a season for Florida. The inconsistency of the season can take a toll on the mentality of a team, but the players and coaches are upbeat and believe they've conquered it.

"You don't want to be like that," Florida catcher Mike Zunino said. "I think we're just struggling to get the switch on. We've been struggling a little bit. Once we get that switch on, most of the guys want to leave it on."

There are still improvements to be made. The pitching staff has come on strong in recent weeks, only allowing more than three runs once in the last eight games, but it's the Florida offense that still hasn't hit its stride.

Most of the problems have been consistent over the last month. In Tuesday's win, the Gators had 14 hits but scored just four runs. In Saturday's loss at Kentucky, Florida had ten hits and scored just once. The issues of leaving runners on base haven't gone away, as the Gators have left 24 runners on in the last two games.

The players believe that will change as the postseason gets closer.

"We're improving," Zunino said. "We're swinging the bats really well, but we need to piece it together. It'll come around sooner or later. We just need to have to continue having good at-bats."

One positive for the Florida offense has been the performance of its freshmen. The three freshmen consistently in the lineup—left fielder Justin Shafer, third baseman Josh Tobias and second baseman Casey Turgeon— are starting to gain confidence and perform to their ability.

"We knew that Shafer, Tobias and Turgeon were going to be able to hit right away," O'Sullivan said. "I'm not surprised with how they're doing. I'm pleased. We were hoping they would do what we thought they would do."

Shafer is 5-7 at the plate in his last two games and is playing an improved left field after struggling at the position early in the season. The coaches knew plenty about his hitting ability before coming to campus, but Shafer is now starting to turn it on at the plate.

"That's the most important thing—being confident and knowing you can hit whoever they put out there," Shafer said. "Baseball is more of a mental game than physical, so if you're confident up there, most of the time you'll put a good swing on the ball."

Since coming back from his fractured hamate, the coaches have trusted Tobias enough at the plate to move him into the second spot in the batting order. His speed at the top of the lineup gives the Gators another dimension.

Turgeon has been solid at the field and at the plate all season. The freshman has provided clutch hits like a leadoff triple on Friday at Kentucky to help clinch the series and an RBI triple to beat Florida State in Jacksonville earlier this year.


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