Third year head coach Kevin O'Sullivan likes where his team is right now, and loves what he's getting from his highly touted freshman class. The top ranked group in the country is living up to that billing one-third of the way through the regular season.
Four Gator rookies have started at least 11 games this season and two of them have been in the lineup for all 19 contests. Leading the way is slugging designated hitter Austin Maddox (.367, 6 HR, 27 RBI). Maddox leads the Gators in HR and RBI as well as doubles (6), total bases (53) and slugging percentage (.671). Fontana has been a revelation at SS playing errorless ball through 82 chances. Fontana has also been solid at the plate (.333) and has drawn more walks (16) than any other Gator. Add in catcher Mike Zunino (.250, 2 HR, 14 RBI) and outfielder Kamm Washington (.368, 1 HR, 5 RBI) and you have almost half the lineup.
The freshmen have been equally important on the mound with Brian Johnson (1-1, 4.29) and Hudson Randall (2-0, 3.78) authoring quality starts against the Bulldogs last weekend.
Monday I had the chance to have Coach O'Sullivan live on my Gainesville radio show. Here s some of that conversation.
LV: This weekend against Mississippi State was pretty much the way you drew it up wasn't it?
KO: "Yeah it was, but we're really young and still have a log of things to work on. This weekend it was pitching and defense. We didn't swing the bat as well as we would like, but there will be other weekends when we don't pitch as well and the bats will have to come through. It was a great weekend for us. The crowd was outstanding Saturday night, and any time you can get a sweep you have to feel good about it."
LV: How important was it to play error free baseball against them?
KO: "We've said this all along that championships are won with pitching and defense. We're obviously catching the ball right now and we put a lot of emphasis on that at practice and in the fall. We've recruited very good players that can handle the ball and it makes for a very clean game."
LV: You came into this season with the top ranked recruiting class and we know that on the field that means nothing, but they have really produced. Are you surprised at all by how much they've given you?
KO: "I wouldn't say I'm surprised, but obviously I'm pleased. Those recruiting rankings (are meaningless); you could have the number one class or the number 40 class. The bottom line is you want to recruit good players that have a strong work ethic and are very coachable. I think these players are coachable and are working awful hard. Whether it's the number one freshman class in the country or number fifteen, who knows? So far so good and we're pleased with their contributions."
LV: It seems to be to be a very mature group for freshmen.
KO: "I would say that. They've played at a very high level before they got here and they played with each other and against each other. From that aspect, they certainly were a step ahead of a lot of freshmen who came into college programs this year."
LV: People notice starting pitchers and guys with power, but I don't remember any freshman that has come in and done what Nolan Fontana has done offensively and defensively.
KO: "He's a great kid and he's exactly what you want in any program. Academically he stays on top of it. He's low maintenance. He's does the right things off the field. On the field he's a grinder. The best way to describe him is (this). When you're recruiting him and you see him you like him. Then you see him a second time and you really, really like him. By the third game you fall in love with him and you say this is what championship teams are built around. We feel fortunate to have him here. He's played really good defense, offensively he's put together quality at bats and he's done it on the bases as well (5-6 SB). He's stepped right in and been a huge part of our success early on."
LV: And what about the play of Mike Zunino behind the plate?
KO: "We said that from day one that he really understands the position. He calls a great game, and he saved I don't know how many runs this weekend. There were at least two instances where they had bases loaded and less than two outs and our pitchers made quality pitches in the dirt for (swinging) strikes and he made early save. Those things don't go unnoticed. His swing is going to keep getting better. He's just a great college catcher and he's like a veteran back there. It's remarkable that he's only been back there for 15 games at this level."
O'Sullivan would not discuss a timetable for the return of pitcher Tommy Toledo who is scheduled for facial surgery this week to repair damage from a line drive that him in the face a week ago Sunday. O'Sullivan told me any sort of speculation over timing of Toledo's eventual return would just put added pressure on the sophomore right hander. He says the team is completely supportive of Toledo and will welcome him back whenever he is able to return to the team.
The Gators' next SEC series will be at Ole Miss beginning Friday night in Oxford.
O'Sullivan Pleased With Freshmen, Team
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