Expectations high as Gushue replaces Zunino

Wherever Mike Zunino was during the 2012 season, Taylor Gushue was always close behind. The two catchers spent time together in the batting cages, working on fundamentals behind the plate and studying film. Replacing the most decorated player in Florida baseball history isn't an easy task, but Gushue will now be trusted to take over for Zunino in the middle of the order and behind the plate.

What Mike Zunino did in Gainesville was unprecedented. He left Florida after the Seattle Mariners took him with the third pick overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, and he's currently starting his first full year of spring training with the big league squad in Arizona.

Zunino became the first Florida player ever to win the Dick Howser Trophy, the Golden Spikes Award and the Johnny Bench Award last season. He also added Baseball America's College Player of the Year while being named a consensus first-team All-American.

Name an accomplishment, and the odds are good that Zunino earned it.

It sets the bar high for Taylor Gushue, who will take over as the full time starter behind the plate when the Gators open their season on Friday at 7 p.m. when they host Duke. He benefited from sitting behind Zunino and watching his every move last season.

"I think that sitting behind Mike was one of the best things that I could've done for my career," Gushue said. "To get to see him work in different situations and perform the way he performed, that was the best thing I could've done."

Their time spent together was by design. Gushue skipped his senior season at Calvary Christian Academy and enrolled at Florida last January. He had one month to practice with the team before the season started. No one really knew what to expect out of the 6-2, 205-pound catcher when he got to campus.

The goal was for Gushue to spend as much time around Zunino as possible. If he earned playing time, he would get it, but that wasn't the focus. Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan and his staff wanted Gushue and Zunino to be attached at the hip.

"At the beginning of the year, Sully told me there was a young kid coming in, and he told me to teach him everything I've learned," Zunino said. "We had a lot of time that was just me and him. We didn't have many catchers last year. Whether we were taking infield-outfield or hitting in the same group, we would just talk.

"He'd ask, "Hey, what do you do here?" If I saw something in a game, I'd tell him what he should do. He caught on quick. It was nice that he came in open to learning, and he's running with it now."

While the goal was for Gushue to sit back and learn, that didn't end up happened.

He answered any questions right away by hitting his way into the lineup on opening night. The Gators opened the season as the No. 1 team in the country, and instead of hitting in the middle of the lineup at Calvary Christian Academy, Gushue was hitting sixth for Florida.

If the legend wasn't growing enough, Gushue hit a home run on the first pitch he saw of his college career. The first player out of the dugout to greet him after the home run? Zunino, of course.

He started the season at a torrid pace and was hitting .290 with five home runs through the first 20 games. Then came the slump.

From games 21-33 during the season, Gushue fell into a 6-for-44 slump. Part of it was because of adjustments made by opposing pitches. Gushue started seeing more off-speed pitches that played a big role in the slump.

He also admitted that part of it came because of the grind of the season. Gushue was preparing to play in high school and now was facing low-to-mid 90s fastballs every day with plus breaking balls. There wasn't a day away from it.

"For the most part, it was me getting a little burnt out," Gushue said. "This year I'm a lot more prepared for it. I just wasn't prepared for it last year. Swinging at strikes, it's obviously the most important thing you can do when you're up there. It's training your eye. I'm not anywhere near where I need to be, but I'm working towards it."

It's not an uncommon situation for a freshman, especially one that should have been in high school. Normal freshmen have the fall and spring practices to prepare while facing their own team's pitching to prepare them for the season. Gushue had a month of preparation against Florida's pitching staff, and even though he led the team in hitting during the spring, that changed when opposing pitches saw more of him.

He did a lot of his damage on fastballs early in the season. Once that scouting report got out, Gushue rarely saw anything but off-speed pitches.

"I don't think it was anything wrong with his swing," O'Sullivan said. "He was a high school senior that was facing the best amateur talent in the country on a very talented team. He learned a few things. You can't get to the top of the mountain without some struggles. He's a totally different player. Everything that he has learned is going to help in the future."

Gushue put in time during the offseason to correct it. The switch hitter's swing is shorter from both sides of the plate and is creating more consistent hard contact.

"He's going to have to hit in the middle of our order," O'Sullivan said. "He's certainly capable. We recruited him for a reason. It's his time to go."

There was also a transition to make behind the plate. Gushue came to Florida and played as the backup catcher last season, but in games that he started behind the plate, opposing teams weren't afraid to run on him. It was a big drop off from Zunino to Gushue behind the plate.

The goal over the fall was to change that. Gushue spent extended time working with O'Sullivan, a former catcher at Virginia, and student assistant coach Buddy Munroe, a catcher at Florida from 2008-09. They cleaned up his throwing motion to second base. Gushue's arm strength was never a problem, but his actions behind the plate limited his arm strength.

It's now a clean motion behind the plate, and Gushue has taken big leaps forward as a defensive catcher.

"The biggest thing I've been working on is throwing down and getting my times good," Gushue said. "Learning each of the pitchers and their sign sets and how to handle them and their specific personalities when they're on the mound during the game. It's my job to make sure they're the most comfortable they can possibly be to where they feel comfortable, throw strikes and perform the best they can perform."

O'Sullivan added, "I'm really pleased with where he's at. Defensively, he has come light years."

The talent at the plate and behind it is there for Gushue. No one is expecting him to match Zunino's eye-popping numbers during his final two seasons at Florida, but the Gators do need Gushue to lead the young roster. Sitting behind Zunino was the perfect bridge to his new role.

"He has put the time in," Zunino said. "He's able to hit and catch. He has to keep his body in shape and mentally be ready to go every game. He's got it in him. Sully did a great job of getting him in here, and I tried to teach him as much as I could. I hope he takes control of the pitching staff."

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