Middle of the field leading the Gators

Kevin O’Sullivan’s strongest teams at Florida are built around talent up the middle, and this year is no different.

When O’Sullivan took Florida to the College World Series for the first time with him at the helm in 2010, the Gators had freshman catcher Mike Zunino, junior second baseman Josh Adams, freshman shortstop Nolan Fontana and senior center fielder Matt den Dekker up the middle. den Dekker and Zunino have already reached in the big leagues and Fontana is having a strong season at Triple-A, waiting on his turn.

When the Gators are good -- and they have been a lot under O’Sullivan -- it’s the middle of the field that is always a big reason why.

This year, Florida has lean on the same combination up the middle with shortstop Richie Martin and second baseman Dalton Guthrie. Center fielder Buddy Reed provides plenty of range and a big arm, while freshmen catchers Mike Rivera and J.J. Schwarz have switched off and handled the defensive demands behind the plate like upperclassmen.

“For the most part, we’ve played really good defense, especially up the middle,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got two young freshmen catchers that have done a really good job behind the plate. Richie Martin and Guthrie have been really good, and then Buddy (Reed) in center. The strength of our club has been up the middle.”

Martin’s defensive ability has always been easy to see. His athleticism helps him get to balls that most college shortstops couldn’t, but the issue last year was the routine play. He committed 21 errors as a sophomore and fielded .930. This year, Martin has only six errors and is fielding .977.

“Physically, he’s just a different player now,” O’Sullivan said. “His bat continues to get better, but defensively, he’s as good as I’ve ever coached. He’s always been able to make the great play, but this year he has made the routine play, the great play. He has shown range right and left, he can come get the slow roller. I think his internal clock, it’s so much more advanced than it was.”

Having freshmen behind the plate wouldn’t be ideal for most teams, but O’Sullivan has seen his teams thrive with it. The Gators made the College World Series in 2010 with a freshman Zunino behind the plate, and Taylor Gushue contributed as a freshman in 2011.

Rivera and Schwarz have been productive as freshmen. Rivera is more advanced defensively, but Schwarz’s power bat has been exactly what the Florida offense needed. His historic four-homer game against Stetson is the highlight, but the freshman is hitting .286 with 14 home runs.

“We’ve been fortunate over the years to have some freshmen come in and hold their own,” O’Sullivan said. “(Guthrie, Rivera, Schwarz) have had great years. Dalton has led off all year for us, and Mike and JJ have done such a good job defensively. JJ swung the bat so well as a freshman. We’re lucky to have some guys that are talented enough to play in this league, but to do that freshman year, it’s tough to do.”

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