Florida Defense Has Been Steady

OMAHA, Neb. - The power throughout the Florida lineup makes the offense go. The efficiency and strike-throwing ability of the pitching staff makes the Gators effective on the mound. Those two areas get plenty of publicity, but it's the defense that has sparkled throughout the postseason. Florida has totaled just two outfield errors in five NCAA Tournament games this year.

"I think I took it for granted," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We've had some really good stretches of defense."

The beginning of the season tested the defense. Nolan Fontana has earned the reputation as one of the best defensive shortstops in the country, solidifying that position up the middle. Mike Zunino's glove and arm behind the plate solidifies that position and can shut down the run game.

However, there were questions at other spots. Freshmen manned second and third base to start the season as Josh Tobias showed the instincts and quick reads off the bat at third base while Casey Turgeon showed he was capable of moving well and turning double plays at second base.

"Josh Tobias has been a big improvement at third base," O'Sullivan said. "Everybody talks about Nolan Fontana and Mike Zunino, but Casey Turgeon might be one of the best defensive second basemen I've ever coached. That's saying a lot when we just lost Josh Adams, who was unbelievable."

The outfield had questions of its own. Senior Tyler Thompson started the year in center field but tore his ACL in the first SEC series of the year. That forced Daniel Pigott to move from left field to center field. After having some issues to start the year, Pigott has improved as the year continued on.

"Daniel Pigott has done a really nice job moving from left to center when Tyler (Thompson) got hurt," O'Sullivan said. "He has developed into a good center fielder."

The middle of the field for Florida went from having a strong couple of individuals to becoming a good unit.

"They're really, really good," South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner said of the Florida defense. "With Zunino Fontana and Pigott in center, they're so good up the middle."

Strong defense has become an important part of college baseball. With the old bats, teams could get past a mistake in the field by just hitting a three-run home run in the next inning to erase the deficit. Offense dropping off has put a premium on defense.

Even when the Florida offense went through its struggles this season, pitching and defense carried the team. It's what O'Sullivan has preached since he got the job in Gainesville.

"Our success has certainly been because of our pitching and defense," O'Sullivan said. "The hitting, regardless of how good a lineup any of these teams have had, we've all been through a two or three week stretch where we haven't hit or executed offensively. It almost seemed like a virus that went from one team to the next.

"Speaking with coaches, the teams that were able to stay above water were the ones that were able to pitch and play defense on a day to day basis."

BALLPARK EFFECTS: TD Ameritrade Park was expected to be a pitcher's park when it opened in 2011. Not much has changed in a year. With 375-foot gaps and a deep 408-foot fence, there isn't much hope for fly balls anywhere other than down the lines.

The Gators lead the country with 75 home runs—nine more than a three-way tie for second place. That won't be as much of a factor in such a large park.

"We try to work on hitting line drives and high velocity ground balls," Mike Zunino said. "We stay on top of it and hit backspin on balls. If you run into it and it goes out, that's how it is. We just try to hit line drives and square balls up."

Friday's opening game between Stony Brook and UCLA featured a rare sight—the wind was blowing out. The ball traveled better in the game than usual, but the Gators won't sit and hope for it to do the same when they open play on Saturday night at 9 p.m. EST.

"As a hitter, you've got to take your singles," Brian Johnson said. "You're not trying to get too big and hit the ball out."

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