VETTEL: Hats Off To McMahon, Gator Baseball Team

You don't get much tougher situations than having to protect a half-game lead in the final weekend of the season while playing on the road against a team with legit NCAA aspirations. But that's exactly what the Florida baseball team was able to stare down this weekend.

Florida visited the pitching-rich Vanderbilt Commodores and came away with three wins and the SEC Championship. Florida rode outstanding pitching, which held Vandy to just eight runs in 31 innings, and the bats of Matt LaPorta (who homered twice on the weekend) and Brian Jeroloman (5 RBI) to three straight wins and a chance to order championship rings.

The SEC title is the Gators' tenth all-time and the first since the 1998 team finished ahead of the pack. If you like omens, the Gators last three SEC Champs ('88, '96, '98) all went on to reach the College World Series in Omaha.

Total Greater Than Sum of the Parts

If you go through the Florida lineup hitter-by-hitter you don't see a tremendously talented ball club. In fact, you see a lineup with weaknesses throughout. The Gators get virtually no productivity out of crucial offensive positions third base (20 rbi) and left field (17 rbi). Florida's designated hitter platoon has combined for just two homers.

The pitching staff has been steady, but does not dominate. Alan Horne is just re-discovering his first-round talent. But his ERA for the year is right at 4.00. Rubber-armed relievers Darren O'Day and Conner Falkenbach get more action than a discount hooker when the fleet is in port.

Defensively only Jeroloman and shortstop Justin Tordi can be considered outstanding at their spots.

One of the hallmarks of coaching is to pull together players and develop a squad so that the end result is superior to what the personnel could call for. A perfect example of that would be Florida's 1994 Final Four team. Another perfect example is this Gator baseball team. Several teams have better lineups. Half the league might have more talent on the mound. Others can do a much better job of catching and throwing. Yet nobody in the SEC has a better TEAM. And that's why Pat McMahon and company got the trophy.

Regional in Gainesville a Lock

With a 38-18 record and a SEC Title in the bank, the Gators are certain to be one of 16 teams hosting NCAA Regionals late next week. Florida has hosted five times, the first coming in 1989 the year after the Gators first trip to the College World Series. The Gators have won three of the Regionals they've hosted ('91, '96, '98) while Miami was the winner the other two times ('89, '02). The Gators made their first trip to the NCAA Super Regionals last year, and hosting will give them a very good shot at advancing again. The difference is the Gators have a good chance to be one of the top eight seeds for the NCAA Tournament. If so, that means they would also host a Super Regional.

How Far Can They Go?

Since Florida is not a supremely talented team, it's reasonable to wonder out loud just how far this team might be able to go into the tournament. Other than a great chance to play at home there are other factors that lead me to believe this team has a great chance to make it to Omaha.

First of all in tournament play pitching is magnified, so Florida's lineup shortcomings are less significant. What I like is the Gators ability to go out on the mound and get the job done. Alan Horne at his best is as good as anyone and with Brian Ball and Tommy Boss, McMahon has two guys who will throw strikes and force teams to put the ball in play. And I challenge anyone to come up with two long men out of the pen as capable as O'Day and Falkenbach. The key may well be getting quality innings out of one or more of Florida's lefty trio of Mike Pete, Steven Porter and Stephen Locke.

Secondly there's Matt LaPorta, my admittedly provincial pick for the SEC player of the year. LaPorta has slammed 23 homers, which is one-third of the entire team's total. He delivers the clutch long ball time and time again and is the kind of guy who can't wait to get up to the plate in a big situation. One hitter like that can affect how teams pitch others in the lineup as well.

Finally there's the karma thing. There is something about this team that makes you feel they are destined to do something special. In fact, they already have.

All-Sports Trophy Stay in Town

Once again the Florida Gators have won the combined All-Sports Trophy for the SEC. It's the Gators 14th straight combined award. The Florida men took first while the women had to settle for third after disappointing late-season performances by track, softball and golf.

Nationally it looks like another top ten finish is in the bag as well. Florida was in 7th place heading into spring and has already added to its point total with a tenth-place finish in the women's golf tournament. Despite losing two straight at home in the NCAA Regional the softball team adds points for a tie for 49th nationally. Both tennis teams will finish no worse than tied for third in the nation and more points can be expected in men's golf, men's outdoor track and baseball.

Among SEC rivals, Tennessee is 11th, Georgia 13th and Auburn 15th. Four other SEC schools entered spring in the top 50.

Are you wondering about FSU? The Seminoles' improvement in their total sports program is not too noticeable in the standings as they check in at #36.

If you like comparing conferences, North Carolina (#3) and Duke (#9) lead the way for the ACC followed by Maryland (#24). Overall the ACC has three in the top 30, eight in the top 40, nine in the top fifty. The SEC has five in the top 30, six in the top 40 and eight in the top 50.

Entering spring, the top six were Stanford, Michigan, UNC, Wisconsin, Texas and Minnesota followed by Florida. Looks like Florida has a great chance to catch both Minnesota and Wisconsin. We'll see about the others.

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Have a great week.

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