Nelson Maldonado photo by Paige Santiago / UAA Communications

Gators look to finish strong

While they haven’t quite lived up to preseason billing just yet, the Florida Gators look to be on a path to finish strong and possibly secure another top national seed come NCAA Tournament time. Facing a brutal schedule so far this season, the next few weeks should help with that part of the puzzle as the Gators look to make a stretch run for the end of the season.

The Gators are currently ranked No. 10 in the country and had an RPI of nine coming into the weekend series with RPI No. 27 South Carolina. Taking the series with the Gamecocks was pivotal in remaining on course for what head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and his team want to accomplish to finish the season.

The Gators knew coming into the year that they would be burdened by a bullpen that is talented but still facing the day-to-day growing pains that a young bullpen will face. Freshmen everywhere in the pen, they have struggled with a few bright spots.

Still, it has been the offense that has left the Gators grasping at straws during the early part of the year. In a lineup that featured just one starter hitting at the .300 mark or higher just a few weeks ago, that offense seems to be coming around a bit.

Senior Ryan Larson has really surprised this season and leads the team in batting average at .323. Larson moved into the cleanup slot this past weekend and came close to delivering a decisive blow in the lone loss for the Gators with a shot that would have been a grand slam but stayed in the park.

Freshman Keenan Bell has been on a nice ride this season as well. He’s batting .313 and has started the last five games and is batting over .500 with runners in scoring position, maybe the biggest issue for the team as a whole.

Sophomore Nelson Maldonado has been a staple in the lineup all season and has been consistent. Maldonado is batting .311 now and has shown the ability to supply some power including a home run this weekend against South Carolina.

Another Gator that made strides from previous years is junior utility infielder Christian Hicks who has played first, shortstop, and third base already this season. Hicks improved his batting habits in the offseason and drew the praise of O’Sullivan then and now. He’s hitting a solid .283 and has had some key RBI during the season.

Freshman Austin Langworthy finds himself with the fifth highest batting average at .263. While not great, Langworthy has been in and out with injuries, and not afforded the luxury of being in the lineup more often to help his consistency. However, he has also supplied some power and nice base running as well when he gets on base.

Again, these aren’t great numbers, but an improvement over what we were seeing to start the season. The Gator bats are headed in the right direction as a whole at the right time.

Florida is also missing some key components to injury and winning regularly without them. Sophomore third baseman Jonathan India should be back soon and junior catcher Mike Rivera will be out a bit longer, but their return should help bolster the lineup.

Lucky for the Gators, they have gotten solid, if not expected, play from their replacements.

“Mark Kolozsvary has done a nice job behind the plate,” O’Sullivan said following the weekend series with South Carolina after Kolozsvary caught all three games. “I know he’s hung in there.”

With India out, Hicks has had to play third, although doing a great job and even flashing some terrific defense over the weekend. The problem is that Kolozsvary has to catch every game in this situation as Schwarz, the normal backup to Rivera at catcher, has to play first in place of Hicks.

“Obviously we’re looking forward to getting back India so we can catch J.J. a little bit more,” O’Sullivan said. “Hopefully we’ll get back India in the next week or two, give Mark a rest back there and start using J.J. back there.”

The aforementioned Langworthy is also playing while not 100%. O’Sullivan will give him a little rest in the early part of this week.

“Austin Langworthy is coming off of that injury, he probably needs to take it easy here for the next couple of days swinging the bat,” he said.

With an offense that is starting to do some better things and a roster that is starting to get healthy, Florida turns to a more favorable schedule to finish.

The Gators have played six SEC foes so far this season and all six are in the top 60 RPI, while four of the six are in the top 30. They have four SEC teams left on the docket with only one above the No. 42 mark, that being Kentucky who leads the SEC East and has a current RPI of 7. The Wildcats are the only conference team left with a current record above .500 in the conference.

This week, they head to Georgia (16-25, 5-13 SEC). Certainly the Bulldogs are capable of beating the Gators on any given night. O’Sullivan just wants them to stay focused on the entire weekend’s results and will try to rest them physically before getting back after things on Tuesday.  

“We’ve got to win series,” he said. “That’s the bottom line, whether it’s home or away, but certainly at home.

“We’re going to give the guys off tomorrow and Monday. We’ll practice again Tuesday at 11 and Wednesday at 11. Working around their (final) exam schedule is the most important thing right now. Then we’ll jump on a bus around 10 o’clock Thursday morning and head up to Athens.”


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