Right field wasn’t a battle for most of the season. Ryan Larson has started 46 games and given the Gators solid production, hitting .310 with a .410 on-base percentage from mostly the ninth spot in the order.
Freshman Jeremy Vasquez’s swing has always impressed the staff, and he’s making a bid to earn playing time in right field. Vasquez is hitting .307 with a .384 on-base percentage. He was second on the team in batting average in spring practices before breaking his finger when a pitch hit him. The freshman was healthy for the start of conference play, but he was in-and-out of the Florida lineup.
That started to change at the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week.
After Larson started the opener against Arkansas, Vasquez started the final four games of the tournament. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said the staff will continue to make the best decision based on matchups, but he likes what Vasquez can add to the lineup with a left-handed bat. Of the other eight spots in the order, Florida has six right-handed hitters and two switch hitters.
The switch hitters -- Buddy Reed and Josh Tobias -- have hit near the top of the lineup in recent weeks, leaving the bottom of the order stacked with right-handed bats. The lineup can get heavy on right-handed hitters, and Vasquez allows a left-handed bat to get in the mix.
“I like the fact that we can get another left-handed bat in there,” O’Sullivan said. “But that’s not to say versus a left-handed arm if Ryan gives us a better option that we’ll do that. We have options. I don’t know if there’s a right answer, but I do like the fact that we do get an extra left-handed bat in the lineup. End of the day, it’s going to come down to match ups.”
GUTHRIE UPDATE: Florida second baseman Dalton Guthrie (wrist) took swings at practice on Wednesday for the first time since his injury. The freshman hurt his wrist on a swing during the ninth inning against LSU in the SEC Tournament semifinal. O’Sullivan held him out of Sunday’s tournament championship game to be safe, the first time Guthrie missed a game all season after hitting leadoff in the first 59 games of the year.
His MRI came back clean on Tuesday night, and O’Sullivan is hoping he’ll have the Guthrie back in the lineup Friday.
“We’ll see how he feels,” O’Sullivan said. “I know he feels a lot better so I would anticipate him being ready to go.”
BASE RUNNING MISTAKES: The Gators snuck out a 2-1 win over LSU in the SEC Tournament to reach the championship game, but it could’ve been a bigger deficit.
In the eighth inning, Josh Tobias started it with a single and Pete Alonso walked. J.J. Schwarz doubled to left-center, scoring Tobias. However, Alonso rounded third base too far and the Tigers threw behind him for an out. On the play, Schwarz also rounded second base too far and LSU threw behind him for the second out during his RBI double. Instead of having second and third with no outs, the Gators had a one-run lead with no runners on and two outs.
Base running has been an issue at times for Florida this season, but O’Sullivan chalked that mistake up to over aggression.
“When you’re dealing with 18-, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds, they’re going to make mistakes,” O’Sullivan said. “When we’re at practice, we work on base running every day. It was a mistake, and what JJ tried to do, he did the right thing. He was trying to advance to third. The whole idea is to get to third with less than two outs and with the rundown between third and home, he just ran through a stop sign. It happens. It happens in the big leagues. JJ just tried to do too much. But he did the right thing. He was trying to get to third.”
If there was a positive about it, the young players got a chance to go over the play in practice and fix it before the start of the NCAA Tournament.
“The thing that we did talk about is that we overcame that mistake,” O’Sullivan said. “We stayed in the game and obviously Mike came up with that big home run. I said to the guys after the game, ‘If we’re going to make mistakes in the game, let’s make them this weekend and learn from them so we don’t make them next weekend.’”
RESTING YOUNGER PLAYERS: O’Sullivan has leaned on his young players throughout the season. The Gators have started three freshmen in 32 games, four freshmen in 18 games and five freshmen in 10 games. If Vasquez is the starting right fielder this weekend, it will be four freshmen in the starting lineup for most of the Gainesville Regional.
To make sure they were ready for the postseason, O’Sullivan monitored them throughout the year. He split catching duties between Mike Rivera and JJ Schwarz, making sure both freshmen would be able to handle the long season. He was also careful with how much the first-year players were on their feet during practice, often giving the team days off late in the year or having shorter practices.
“Obviously the catching position, we’ve been pretty consistent the whole year alternating those two guys,” O’Sullivan said. “I think that’s helped them stay fresh. It’s pretty hard for a freshman catcher to catch every single game, so to have two guys as talented as those two guys are and alternate them has probably helped them keep their legs underneath them.”