VETTEL: UF Baseball Slide Inconceivable

The slide of the Gator baseball team from second in the nation to eleventh in the SEC was a tough one for everyone to suffer through. And by everyone I mean players, coaches, administrators, fans, media and concessionaires. A season that began with incredible promise and potential ended up on the scrap heap of the most disappointing seasons UF has ever experienced in any sport.

The Gators entered the season ranked #2 and shot up to #1 after sweeping the Hurricanes in Miami. Yet they finished up at 28-28 and lost two-thirds of their SEC games.

Many have taken the stand that this team was vastly overrated at the start of the season, and while that has turned out to be the case no one voiced such sentiments until the middle of last month. Sure, the Gators had significant losses form last season. Florida was without stalwart pitchers Alan Horne, Tommy Boss and Conner Falkenbach plus centerfielder Jeff Corsaletti and shortstop Justin Tordi. While that's significant, the Gators also returned seven of the top nine position players and three key pitchers. That's more than enough to keep a team competitive let alone prevent a dramatic slide.

Injuries Took a Bite Out of This Team

Before the Gators could even consider a return to the NCAA Tournament they lost sophomore pitcher Stephen Locke to arm surgery. Locke was a freshman All-American who posted a 3.74 ERA in eleven starts. His strikeout/walk ratio (3.67/1) as a starter was the best on the team. The team also lost Jared Kubin and Dan Brooks who played minimal roles in 2005, but showed in the fall and early spring that they were ready for expanded roles.

The most significant injury of all was the strained oblique muscle which kept slugger Matt LaPorta on the bench for 13 games. But the Gators weathered the loss of their top slugger and entered SEC play with a 15-6 record and LaPorta back in the lineup. A stirring Sunday rally gave the Gators a series win over Arkansas to start conference play, and there was every reason to think this team was in good shape. After all, the 17-7 was the same as last year's squad after 24 games and the 2-1 SEC start was actually better than the '05 Gators who opened the conference 1-3.

SEC Struggles Unprecedented

Beginning with a three-game sweep at the hands of South Carolina, the Gators lost eight consecutive SEC weekend series. At one point, Florida lost 19 of 25 SEC games to set a school record with 20 conference losses, three more than any UF team before.

Amazingly enough in that stretch, Florida only twice gave up ten or more runs. Those games (just my luck) happened to be Sun Sports telecasts against South Carolina (21-4) and Vanderbilt (16-2) that may have been the worst televised losses ever. What really hurt was falling behind over and over and over again. It seemed the Gators were always chasing runs, and that pouts a lot of pressure on the offense AND the defense.

The Gator shortcomings against SEC competition were across the board. Florida scored 56 fewer runs (137-193) than last year against SEC team, and gave up 50 more (197-147). The Gators committed nine more errors, hit ten fewer homers, stole fewer bases and even hit into ten more double plays. The team batting average against the SEC dropped 22 points while the staff ERA jumped up by more than a run per game.

To me the most amazing thing about this season is to see the dramatic drop off for several players. Gavin Dickey is the only returning player who improved on his performance of last year. The super sophomores (Davis, Jeroloman, LaPorta and LeClerc) combined for 61 homers last year, but just 29 in their junior seasons. They drove in 255 runs last year, but only 139 this time around. Darren O'Day and Brian Ball combined for 15 wins last year but totaled just five for the '06 Gators.

NCAA Stretch Over

The Gators had reached the NCAA Baseball Tournament for the past six years, which is the best such streak in UF history. While Florida's schedule and RPI probably justifies the NCAA taking a look, it's inconceivable the selection committee would tab the eleventh-place team in the SEC.

The University of Florida should never find itself on the outside looking in when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. With a 64-team field plus all the advantages UF has to offer, it should be a no-brainer. Yet the every Gator coach in the last 20-plus years has had the experience of missing out. In an upcoming article, we'll offer some thoughts on helping make certain it doesn't happen again.

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