Guthrie sparks Florida offense

Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan went back and forth all offseason about his leadoff hitter.

The Gators have seen Richie Martin make a big jump in the offseason and could have stuck him at the top of the order to let the veteran player handle the role. He set the Bourne Braves record for batting average over the summer in the Cape Cod League and was a consistent hitter throughout offseason scrimmages.

But the thought of freshman Dalton Guthrie at the top of the order continued to intrigue the staff. Throwing a first-year player into that role can put added pressure on his shoulders, but the staff was confident Guthrie would be able to handle it and made the final decision the week before this weekend’s opening series.

Through the first three games, the decision looks to be paying off.

Guthrie went 4-5 at the plate on Sunday with two doubles and three runs scored, helping the Gators to a 6-1 win over Rhode Island to complete the sweep. For the weekend, he hit .462 (6-13). He got out in his first four at-bats on Friday night, but a double late on Friday started a 6-9 streak at the plate to close out the weekend.

After debating about the decision to hit Guthrie leadoff, O’Sullivan put the freshman there because of how impressive he has been in the preseason and their familiarity with his mental makeup through the recruiting process.

“There’s always risk, but I’ve seen him play since he was a sophomore in high school,” O’Sullivan said. “We have an idea of what he’s capable of doing. I just told him he was going to hit leadoff, give us good at bats and do your thing. What you saw today is what we’ve seen for a long time. He’s a great base runner, he’s instinctual, he’s aggressive. Everything he does is full tilt. He’ll never give you a bad effort down the line. He’s a very good defensive player.

“They’re hard to find -- guys that play the game so aggressively and that aren’t afraid to make mistakes. Most young players play a little tentative before they get their feet wet because they don’t want to make mistakes. But this one here, he just lets it all out and plays. Everything he does is just fast twitch. There might be guys that are faster in the 60-yard dash, but as far as getting down the line and first-step quickness, he’s as good as we’ve got.”

Harrison Bader continued his hot weekend, going 2-4 while driving in two runs. He finished the weekend with a .583 batting average (7-12) with three home runs and 11 RBI to go with a 1.500 slugging percentage. Bader and Guthrie were the only Florida hitters with multiple hits after the team posted 27 hits in the first two games.

On the mound, A.J. Puk got his first start of the season. His final line wasn’t overly impressive, but O’Sullivan was happy that his sophomore threw strikes. That was an issue for him last season, but 50 of his 76 pitches were strikes on Sunday and he showed better feel for his offspeed pitches.

Puk gave up six hits and two walks over 4.2 innings with only one run, but his production should improve when his fastball gets better.

“The thing I was excited about, he threw a ton of strikes,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s the best his slider has looked, he threw some good changeups. And that was not his best fastball, he’ll have a better one. He was probably 90-92 (mph) today, but when he gets that cranked up, he’ll be way better than that. I was pleased with his effort because he threw a ton of strikes and pitched.”

The Florida bullpen threw 4.1 shutout innings, allowing just two runs in 12 innings of work over the weekend.

The Gators return to action on Tuesday against Florida A&M at 7 p.m.

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