Gator Baseball Looking Towards Omaha

It's cold and rainy in Gainesville this morning, so naturally my thoughts turned to Gator baseball. Kevin O'Sullivan's third season at the helm of the Florida program begins with more promise and higher expectations than what Florida brought into the past two campaigns.

Sully's second Gator team improved by eight wins, posting a 42-22 record and winning the SEC Eastern Division. The Gators hosted and won an NCAA Regional before being eliminated by Southern Mississippi in the Super Regional, also in Gainesville.

The end of last season was troubling for the Gators in large part because Florida blew healthy leads in each game against the Golden Eagles. The Gators led 4-2 after four innings of the first game only to lose 9-7. Game two was even more frustrating as the Gators let a 6-1 lead get away when closer Billy Bullock surrendered three eighth inning runs in a season ending 7-6 setback. Florida ended up two wins from the College World Series in Omaha and those are two wins the Gators intend to get in 2010.

This season Florida has reason to expect to be better equipped for a big year with a deeper and more talented pitching staff. The Gators return three sophomore pitchers who gained tremendous experience in 2009. Alex Panteliodis (6-5 (1), 4.38), Nick Maronde (3-1, 4.40) and Anthony DeSclafani (6-3, 4.98) should be major contributors. All three split time between the starting rotation and bullpen and O'Sullivan hopes to better define their roles this season. Another rookie last year, Justin Poovey (2-1, 5.73) showed some promise late in the season.

The Gators are also expecting big things from talented right-hander Tommy Toledo who struggled in 2008 while pitching hurt and underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow. O'Sullivan says several newcomers from the nation's top ranked recruiting class should also help immediately. That group includes righties Michael Heller, Hudson Randall, Greg Larson and Ben Brown along with lefties Brian Johnson and Steven Rodriguez.

Offensively, O'Sullivan welcomes back perhaps the best right side of the inside in all of college baseball. First baseman Preston Tucker (.364, 15, 85) and second baseman Josh Adams (.342, 8, 52) are joined in the every day lineup by senior centerfielder Matt den Dekker who is much better than his numbers from last year (.296, 5, 37). The Pigott brothers Jonathan (.357, 6, 32) and Daniel (.301, 3, 21) should see plenty of action in the outfield while there is competition for the jobs at third, short and behind the plate.

The catching situation as particularly interesting as Florida welcomes two of the best prep catchers in the country who turned down pro ball in Austin Maddox and Mike Zunino. They'll battle holdovers Hampton Tignor and Ben McMahan who combined for just 77 at bats last season.

I recently spoke with O'Sullivan about his expectations for this season.

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LV: You start out ranked No. 7. I know you're not a big believer in rankings, but is it a positive thing for your team?

KO: "It's nice to see your team ranked in the pre-season and things like that, but honestly it's the ranking at the end of the year that's more important and we'll continue to emphasize that to the players."

LV: How much better do you feel about the talent and depth on the mound?

KO: Pitching wise I really like our versatility. We have a lot of new pitchers who I think can contribute right away. I like the fact that we have the four freshmen from last year who are coming back and much more improved. We've got five lefties now on the staff and that should help us out a lot."

LV: One guy who isn't new, but might as well be viewed as a newcomer is Tommy Toledo who is finally healthy. What do you expect from him?

KO: "The thing about Tommy is he's a great kid and a great teammate. Quite frankly, I don't think anybody has seen the best of Tommy Toledo. I don't think he was 100 percent his freshman year (4-4, 4.40). I think he pitched a lot on guts. We do think he's 100 percent, but we'll be very cautious with him early on, but we're really looking forward to getting him out there."

LV: Is it important to settle on a rotation and define roles for your pitchers this time around. You really were never able to do it last year.

KO: "I think that's our goal by the time we get to conference play is to have pretty much a set rotation. That was awfully hard last year counting on freshmen to go out there on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It was a juggling act last year and ultimately we'd like to settle on a rotation."

LV: Do you see a lot of battles for playing time?

KO: "Absolutely. We're going to toy with our lineup a lot before we start conference play. We've got a lot of guys who've worked really hard and deserve an opportunity. Hopefully by conference play we'll have that thing settled a little bit."

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Freshman Nolan Fontana is the favorite to win the shortstop job while JUCO transfer Bryson Smith may be the leader in the battle at third base.

Look for Tyler Thompson to get into the mix in the outfield, possibly becoming a LH/RH platoon in left field. Jerico Weitzel and Cody Dent will battle for playing time as well.

Florida opens the season on Friday, February 19 against USF in the first game of a three game series. The Gators will play eight home games in 10 days before heading to Tampa to face Florida State on March 2 followed by a weekend series at Miami.

SEC action begins March 19 when Mississippi State comes to town.


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