SEC Championship Showdown Begins Tonight

Florida baseball's hopes of claiming an SEC championship for the first time since 2005 depend on winning their final series in conference play. Making that happen won't be an easy task on the road against South Carolina. Both teams are ranked in the top six and are considered likely national seeds in the NCAA tournament, but only one can be conference champs.

Tonight's first game of three in Columbia could be the pivotal one for the Gators.

This will be Florida's first visit to Carolina Stadium, which opened in 2009. The Gators swept the Gamecocks last season, but South Carolina had won 10 of the twe12lve games prior to that and has historically had the upper hand in the series. Florida has only won one series ever played in Columbia, and just two of the last ten overall.

Both the Gators and Gamecocks have won eight of nine series in conference play this season on their way to compiling 20-7 SEC records. While that mark is identical, the makeup of the teams is not. Florida will start a sophomore and two freshmen pitchers during the series, while South Carolina counters with a senior and a redshirt junior on the first two days. That experience may prove helpful for the Gamecocks, but should UF succeed in winning one of the first two games they could have a real advantage Saturday as SC's never settled on a reliable third starter all season.

South Carolina's Blake Cooper gets the opening game start. The righty is undefeated and has ten wins on the season with a 3.01 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .217 against Cooper on the season. Florida will counter with left hander Alex Panteliodis, who's 8-2 with a 3.34 ERA. South Carolina has taken the first game of every SEC series thus far, so a Florida win tonight would be enormous both for putting them one victory away from the title and for the pressure that would put on a Gamecocks squad unaccustomed to it.

Florida's defense was singled out by South Carolina coach Ray Tanner Wednesday as hugely important in their success this year. After being 11th in fielding percentage a season ago the Gators now lead the conference in that statistic. The South Carolina coach also weighed in on Florida's abundance of young talent.

"They're pitching guys who could be in professional baseball right now that chose to go to school" said Tanner. "They're just extremely talented. (Brian) Johnson, (Hudson) Randall and (Austin) Maddox who leads the team in RBIs, they're not your normal freshmen."

Gator pitchers will need to keep Whit Merrifield in check as much as possible. The South Carolina rightfielder has a team high 12 homers and has also stolen a dozen bases. Other key Gamecock hitters include third baseman Adrian Morales, who leads the team with 44 RBIs, and centerfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. who has a team best .354 batting average with nine homers.

Sellout crowds of more than 8,000 are expected for each game of the series, meaning Florida's young team will be facing an environment unlike any many of them have experienced to this point. Regardless of the outcome, it may prove beneficial for the NCAA tournament when that begins in two weeks.

Tonight's game begins at 7 p.m.

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