Speed Could Be Key vs. Tulane

The Gator baseball team faces one of the better pitchers in the country Friday afternoon when they go up against Tulane's Shooter Hunt in the first game of the NCAA Regional in Tallahassee.

Hunt brings a 9-3 record and 2.45 ERA into the match up and has registered 119 strikeouts in 91 2/3 innings of work. The powerful right hander has had some issues with teams that can run. Florida is such a team with three excellent base stealers in Avery Barnes (26-29), Matt den Dekker (20-20) and Cole Figueroa (19-23). Of course, you can't steal first, so those Gator runners will have to find a way to get on base before they try using their speed to manufacture runs.

Florida will counter with lefty Stephen Locke who is one of a few Gators with NCAA Tournament experience. The fourth-year junior takes a 5-2 record and 3.07 ERA into the game. Interestingly he had the same won/loss record for the Gators in 2005 and pitched in the finals of the College World Series. He missed the ‘06 season after undergoing "Tommy John" surgery on his elbow and struggled last year with a 6.95 ERA. Locke did not pitch in the SEC Tournament last week, but has won his last three decisions.

Wednesday I (and other media guys) spoke with both Locke and Head Coach Kevin O'Sullivan about giving Locke the ball for the first game and matching up with Tulane.

On Monday O'Sullivan announced that Patrick Keating (8-1, 3.47 ERA) would get the ball against Tulane, but that changed later that day.

LV: Sully, what went into the decision to switch to Stephen for game one?

KO: We watched some tape Monday and figured he would be as good a match up as anyone. To be honest with you it was sitting on our minds that we went all the way to Birmingham and Stephen never touched the mound, and he's been maybe our hottest pitcher of late. So we didn't want that to happen again and we feel real confident with him.

LV: What have you learned about Tulane offensively and how will Stephen match up with them?

KO: They're very aggressive at the plate. They're a free swinging group. They can hurt you in a lot of different ways. They like to run the bases. I think they have 92 stolen bases, so having Stephen in there he can help hold the running game down a little bit.

LV: Tulane comes in with an RPI of 49, making them a borderline # 3 or # 4 seed, but with Shooter Hunt on the mound they might be a top 15 team. That makes it a tough draw, doesn't it?

KO: That's what separates baseball from any other sport in that one guy can change the entire complexion of the game. With Shooter Hunt on the mound, that's probably their best guy and he gives them a great chance to really do well. Tulane is a very good club, they have a great tradition there and we'll have our hands full, there's no question.

As for Stephen Locke, the lefty will be pitching for the first time in two weeks when he takes to the mound at Dick Howser Stadium. The Gators had him throw 75 pitches last Friday in an effort to keep him sharp and we'll all find out at the same time if that was successful. He's ready to get out there.

SL: I'm excited. It's been a couple of years since we've been in the post season and can't wait to get back into it. We're only five wins from getting back to Omaha.

MG: How long ago does that last trip to Omaha seem?

SL: Seems like a while ago. A lot of stuff has happened since then. I came back from the injury, had to miss a year. I struggled a bit last year and having a good year this year has been a good upside. There's not much better than post-season baseball.

LV: How gratifying is it to be where you are today considering where you were a year ago and two years ago today?

SL: It's very gratifying. You get to the point where last year I probably came back to early from the injury and struggled a little bit. I was kind of down about some of my performances last year, but I had to tell myself the first year back from injury you're not going to be that great. Having a good year this year has made it seem like all that work I put in to come back has been worthwhile.

LV: What have you learned about this Tulane team you're facing?

SL: They're a lot like us on the base paths and they run all over the place. They have a few really hot hitters right now and the middle of the order really hitting the ball, so we're going to have to keep those leadoff guys off base in front of those hot hitters coming up.

The Gators are making their 24th appearance in the NCAA Baseball Tournament, and it's the fourth time they have been sent to Tallahassee. The last time was in 1988 when the Gators beat both Tulane and FSU on the way to their first regional title and a trip to the College World Series.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel

Fightin Gators Top Stories