LV: Mac, with nine of the top ten everyday players back and some established arms on the mound, it looks like the 2006 Gators have the potential to be pretty darn good.
PM: I think that's true and we've already begun working to make that happen. It will bring on new and interesting challenges. We have to stay healthy so the strength and conditioning program is very important.
LV: When you think about next year with the lineup returning almost completely intact the main question will be about pitching. Four of your top eight are likely to be gone (Alan Horne could return, but Boss, Falkenbach and Pete will not). Have Michael Branham, Tommy Wynn and Bryan Augenstein gotten enough experience and shown you enough that they can take on much larger roles?
PM: Well I hope to think so. We like some of our young arms under the development of (pitching coach) Ross Jones and I think he feels very good about them. We have to find some step-up guys because losing that bulk of innings (446-2/3) is always a difficult deal. These guys know that and they've been in the arena so they know what it takes to be successful. Now they have to step forward and compete.
LV: You had two lefties Stephen Locke (16 games, 64-2/3 innings) and Steve Porter (25 games, 9-2/3 innings) see a good bit of time on the mound, will their roles increase dramatically.
PM: There's no question. That's what we're talking about in gaining experience. They have the taste of being in a national championship environment so they've got to be part of the support system to pull other players through. We talked about that in our final meeting. We let them feel good about their accomplishments because that's important but we also had to challenge them to look forward. Their roles have to be expanded and I think they're ready to meet that challenge.
LV: Darren O'Day was a horse for you in the post-season (1-0, 1 save, 0.87 ERA in NCAA Tournament games) and he's a guy who can go a lot longer than a typical closer. Is he pencilled in to remain a closer or might you do something else with him?
PM: I need to answer that question in two ways. First he did a great job for us last year and we could use him in a lot of different roles and pitch him a lot. But the thing is we need to do is find ourselves a different way to close. When you only have a drop down guy (O'Day and Falkenbach are both side-arm specialists) it causes some weaknesses from managing a game from the perspective of matching up. Darren can fit a number of roles for us and we have to continue to build and grow so we can offer some different looks out of the bullpen against some of the people we play.
LV: Major League Baseball was not very kind to you and it looks like your top four recruits will be playing for them instead of for you.
PM: Professional baseball is a tremendous ally to us at the University of Florida, but there are some frustrations with that. You go and sign what on paper is a great recruiting class and then the June draft unfolds and you lose guys who were crucial to the way you match and fit (your personnel). Although we return eight starters we've got to build a bench we have to have more depth and give them an opportunity to play and push the guys ahead of them. We're not as good in all areas as we need to be and hopefully we can make progress in that area.
LV: I know this is a time to be looking at next year's seniors, but are there players available right now who are good enough to help your team next season that you are recruiting?
PM: Yes there are. Recruiting for us in the sport of baseball is an ongoing process. We have not finished this class yet because while the draft takes some guys away it also gives you some answers. Some young men who you thought they would be drafted in a spot did not sign (w/colleges). You thought they would go higher due to the original "read" of them, but they went later than they expected and are available now. So it can add and build to what we lost in the draft. We don't need a whole lot be we would like to add some guys who can help us offensively and one or two arms to fit certain situations would be a plus, too.
LV: As you look at the state of the program right now are you happy with where things are?
PM: Yeah, I'm very happy in a lot of ways because we look at the program from a seven-pronged approach. We always talk about on-field coaching and that's the part I like the most and wish we could do that more. But we also have to be making strides in facilities; community support, camp structure and recruiting base. You can quick fix things, but I think the foundation is very important and I'm pleased where that is at this point. Want more, believe me, but we're working very hard at it.
LV: Next year's team will have higher expectations than any of your other teams. Have you talked with the guys about that yet? Have you let them know, okay guys, it's been fun, but now for the first time in your careers, you get to wear a bulls-eye?
PM: You bring up a very valid point and that's exactly what part of my speech to the club was about -- the expectation levels and raising the bar. When you can do that and when your standard is different, that to me is pretty exciting. That's exactly what we have done. Now, one must handle that part of it and I'm anxious to see how we handle that.
* * *
The 2006 Gator baseball team might have enough depth if current reserves Matt Gaski, Bryson Barber and Chris Woods or some others raise their games. Exactly what Gavin Dickey might do with regards to football and baseball is anyone's guess at this point. I doubt Gavin is completely certain and that can change anyway.
Perhaps Wynn or Augenstein can join Porter for a lefty/righty bullpen tandem and we'll see O'Day in the rotation. Maybe an incoming freshman will come in and play a key role like Locke did with eleven starts.
If you want to fantasize, maybe the Yankees are really cheap with Alan Horne and he comes back for another season. That would make Florida a pre-season top five pick.
There's a lot that can happen between now and February, but one thing is certain. The Florida baseball program is in great shape… and better hands.
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