An early season series win over usual Gator killers, Miami served as the catalyst for Florida's self-confidence while also opening a few eyes around collegiate baseball circles. The (then) second ranked Hurricanes return nearly everybody on a team that advanced to Omaha last season. Coach Jim Morris lost more bat girls than players for goodness sakes.
Nonetheless, the Florida players and staff reigned superior over Miami in an eventful three game series that the Gators had circled upon release of the schedule.
The Gators played game one in what had seemingly become the recent traditional Miami/Florida fashion. Florida plays tough, but finds a way to help the 'Canes secure a victory, usually though a mental breakdown. Per that recent norm, Florida lost 9-7.
But, on Saturday, a funny thing happened on the way to The Mac. The Gators took control. Bolstered by the strong mound presence of Bryan Ball, Stephen Porter, and Darren O'Day, Florida took a 2-1 extra inning affair from the Hurricanes that left many wondering if the Miami curse was over.
When the Gators jumped out to a 12-2 lead in Sunday's rubber match, there wasn't too much remaining doubt. Sure, the 'Canes loaded up and closed the game to 12-10, but that's to be expected from a team as talented as Miami. Rather than question the Gators answered by adding two more runs while pitchers Bryan Augenstein and Connor Falkenbach closed things out. With the 14-11 victory, Florida proved that McMahon had indeed added a few strong arms, and most importantly, the Gators didn't fold mentally.
It was a reversal of the 2004 series in Coral Gables, when Florida won the opener, lost a close game on Saturday, and was shelled by the 'Canes in the rubber match.
With a team batting average of .305 the Gators are not exactly knocking the cover off of the ball. Currently, there are four players that would love to get hot. Second baseman Adam Davis has a team high 81 trips to the plate but has struggled in much of the early part of the season. Davis appears at times to be pressing. He certainly swung the bat well for Florida last season but is mirrored in an early season slump.
Third baseman Brandon McArthur has overcome extraordinary physical battle just to be here. He probably needs just needs a bit more time to adjust to this level. He is currently hitting only .213. McArthur has only struck out eight times and he only has three walks. It appears that the ball is just not finding the hole.
I also think that you'll see catcher Brian Jeroloman (.284) and outfielder Stephen Barton (.288) get a few more pitches to hopefully raise their averages. Jeroloman has 16 walks, while Barton has tallied 12.
Charlotte County High School has provided the Gators with some tremendous leadership and talent to boot. Senior Jeff Corsaletti leads the team with a .458 average. The Port Charlotte native is currently riding a 10-game hitting streak where he is hitting .500. He has also demonstrated tremendous patience as he leads the team in walks with 19.
Fellow Charlotte County grad Matt LaPorta is second on the team (among 12 game starters) with a .371 average. LaPorta leads the team in power numbers with six round trippers and six doubles, and a triple. Obviously, he leads the Gators with a .743 slugging percentage. The sophomore is second on the squad in RBI's. He also gets a lot odf walks (17). He also leads in one other category, strikeouts.
Freshman designated hitter Jared Kubin (.326), outfielder Brian LeClerc (.313), and shortstop Justin Tordi (.317) are all hitting above .300. LeClerc is second on the team in home runs with five.
Grins have occasionally turned to smiles on the face of Coach Pat McMahon in post game interviews. And, why not? The Florida skipper has been around the game long enough to know potential when he sees it. Potentially speaking, these guys could improve into a lethal band of brothers as the conference schedule rolls along. The first 20 games are merely a prelude to what is usually a long and always competitive trip through the nation's best baseball conference.
McMahon and pitching Coach Ross Jones desperately needed to find a few good men just to compete. Thus far, the development of Bryan Ball and Stephen Porter combined with the additions of newcomers Alan Horne, Stephen Locke, and Bryan Augenstein would lead you to believe the mission was accomplished. The young guns have been a compliment to the establishment which includes Connor Falkenbach, Darren O'Day, and Tommy Boss. These guys have been through the SEC wars and must continue to provide leadership.
Two pitchers who have developed and demonstrated a tremendous level of respect from the opposition are O'Day and Ball. O'Day is pitching like the kid in pre-school who wouldn't let others play with the blocks. He's just plain nasty. The junior has posted a 0.47 ERA through 19.1 innings of relief, while opponents are hitting a paltry .162 against him. O'Day has a slider and curve that are ready for prime time.
Ball (4-0) has been tremendous as well. The Charlotte County High School graduate has been very effective, keeping opponents to a .200 average. His impressive 1.34 ERA is a marked improvement over last season's 5.04 Ball has kept the ball down and doesn't allow hitters to get a good pitch. Ball has struck out 23 in 33.2 innings.
Right hander Alan Horne is a welcome addition to the Florida staff. A first round selection out of Marianna High School, Horne is still finding his way back from Tommy John surgery. He is a power pitcher with a wicked curveball. Horne has struck out 17 batters in 20.1 innings.
Reliever Connor Falkenbach (0-1) has thrown the ball failrly well. The Douglas High graduate has made 10 appearances (team high) striking out 28 in 27.2 innings. Opponents are hitting a respectable .302 against him.
Senior Tommy Boss (3-0) finished last season with a series of outstanding starts. After a somewhat sluggish start Boss is already looking like he is on the fast track to regaining his late 2004 form. Last season Boss struck out a batter every 2.24 innings. His keep the ball low and get the ground out persona may be taking on water. Boss has already recorded 11 K's in just 23.1 innings, a strikeout every 2.1 innings.
Personally, I believe Falkenbach and Boss will demonstrate that their best work is ahead of them.
Tampa freshman Stephen Locke (3-0) is one of the arms that Coach McMahon brought in this past recruiting year. The southpaw is picking things up in short fashion. Opponents have yet to solve Locke, hitting just .216 against him. He has struck out 17 batters in just 20.2 innings. He has a 1.31 ERA.
One of the more disturbing facts is that shortstop Justin Tordi is the only returning Florida player to rank among the best in the conference in fielding. Tordi made 13 errors in 359 chances for a .964 percentage last year.
This is the one area where Florida has to improve. The Gators have committed 30 errors in 799 chances (.962) The SEC average is .966 at this time.
Davis is struggling in the field as well. The Fort Myers native has committed a team high seven errors in 99 chances at second base. Third baseman Brandon McArthur has committed four errors in 27 opportunities. One player who has been made a far too many errors (3) in only 12 chances is O'Day. But, can you really find too much fault with him? I mean, if they can't find the ball to hit it 90 percent of the time, what's there to worry about?
Florida struggled at times with the green light at third base when it seemed as though red was the obvious choice. I can think of at least two runners gunned down at the plate in early action. That problem appears to have been rectified though. Aggressive base running has been a staple in Gainesville for decades. The Gators will again be a dangerous team on basepaths. Florida has stolen 35 of 44 attempts (.795).
The Gators are led by Barton who has stolen 10 of 11 attempts. Davis is back running the paths with passion. He has stolen eight of his nine attempts. Corsaletti has taken an extra base on six of seven attempts. LeClerc has been punched out three times this season.
The mark of good coaching staff is to see improvement in their teams. Every team has kinks to work out early in the season, and Florida had their share. Originally, I noted five areas that I'd hoped would improve after the opening weekend. But any questions about mental toughness and unity were extinguished after the series victory over the Hurricanes.
Base running: Florida has seemingly repaired the light at third base just in time for conference play.
Errors: Coach them up and put them in position to make plays. It's that simple. Florida's fielding woes are players simply not turning what should be routine into an out. There is no excuse for errors.
Dealing w/ slumping players: Many of you have questioned Coach Mac's handling of Adam Davis? So many say sit Davis who is just not playing up to his level of play. There is no question that Davis is struggling both in the field and at the plate. However, in my opinion, it makes more sense to try and let him play through it for now.
I'll offer two reasons. Davis is an integral part of what is a sound double play tandem that has 22 on the year thus far. That should pay dividends when playing sluggers like Ole Miss and South Carolina in the first two weeks of SEC play. Also, he clearly is slumping, not unproven. Last year Davis was a Freshman All American (Baseball America). He hit .320 and set a freshman record with 22 steals as well. If his play hinders the team against SEC foes, then a decision will have to be made.
Gavin Dickey began the season in left field where he struggled at the plate and seemed a bit out of sync in the field. Junior Stephen Barton took over and looked a little better in both phases of the game. Dickey continued to play in spot starts and as a role player, as McMahon seemingly worked to find somebody who would make the decision for him.
It appears that moving Dickey along slowly worked beautifully. He is playing well enough (hitting .424) to give McMahon cause for thought once again. Whether platoon or moving Dickey ahead, it's a definite no lose situation for the Gators. Florida will need both of them throughout the year.
Furthermore, I think Coach Mac and staff has done a fine job of working in some of the inexperienced/young players at their own pace. Sure, it would be great if the Gators had a couple of additional pitchers and maybe a couple of additional bats to move into the lineup but until Steinbrenner purchases the collegiate rulebook, that's just the breaks.
Road trips are always tough in the SEC and the Gators have yet to play outside of McKethan Stadium. This is yet another opportunity for leadership to emerge. It can't hurt having Alan Horne, who played for Ole Miss a couple of years ago, around to offer some insight and advice this weekend when Florida goes on the road to Oxford to start their SEC portion of the season.