Preview: National Champs vs. No. 1

The defending National Champions face the nation's top ranked Florida Gators this weekend, and it should be a three-game SEC early-season series for the ages. Look inside as John Klauber has an in-depth look at the Gators and what the Gamecocks are up against in Gainesville.

FLORIDA Gators; McKethan Stadium, Gainesville FL.

Record: 20-2. Home: 15-1; Away: 4-0; Neutral: 1-1; SEC: 3-0.

Head Coach Kevin O'Sullivan has done an incredible job restoring the once grand tradition that was Florida Gator baseball. In his fourth year, he has literally brought them from the cellar to the top of the conference, conceivably the rise will last for as long as he stays their skipper.

It has a lot to do with program organization; has a lot to do with a staff that knows their assignment and how to approach their individual assignments. It has a lot to do with recruitment and knowing where the bones are buried within the State of Florida… an element long missing in Gator baseball. Of the 35 players listed on their roster, 28 are Florida natives, including Bucky Dent's son, Cody.

That should tell you something about the transition O'Sullivan has made at Florida; if one of the Yankees best trusts you with their son, other parents notice. Much like the time when Whitey Ford trusted his son, Eddie, with Bobby Richardson and he came to play for the Gamecocks in '72. Florida has become a solid program because they've done the off-field work so well… just as we have with our staff. It is the only way to go from a really good team to an exceptional one in today's college game.

O'Sullivan is assisted by two excellent assistant coaches with deep ties to major league baseball. Brad Weitzel, in his fourth year with the Gators, served as recruiting scout for the Florida area for the Minnesota Twins for 15 years before joining the Gator staff. Craig Bell, also in his fourth season at Florida, served with the Cincinnati Reds as an associate head scout for 7 years. He has extensive recruiting experience in the State of Florida, Canada, Dominican Republic and the Cape Cod Baseball League each summer.

The end result for this program has been success and correlates directly to their experience and connections within Florida and it is no wonder that the program has risen to such excellent standards in such a short period of time. Admittedly, Kevin O'Sullivan did it right when he was presented with this "clean slate" called Florida Gators Baseball.

Hitting… gone is Matt Den Dekker, better known as "the Gamecock killer". Den Dekker was their stellar #2 hitter that always seemed to get the big hit against Gamecock pitching. Other than Den Dekker, everyone else comes back to haunt the Gamecocks! Their nine order (excluding Den Dekker) is basically the same as it was last year, but they are a year older. Therefore, they are as dangerous a hitting team as they were last year and haven't missed a beat without Den Dekker. Daniel Pigott has worked hard to fill Den Dekker's #2 position and is currently hitting .432 behind Nolan Fontana, Gator lead off man (Fontana has a .495 on- base percentage).

They have done some interesting things to cover first base this year. Last year, Preston Tucker was on first base, but has been moved to right field for 2011. To fill the void at first, Florida relies on weekend starting pitcher Brian Johnson to play first if he isn't pitching. If he is on the bump (usually on Fridays) you will see Austin Maddox. Johnson will hit when pitching with Maddox on first. When Johnson is off the bump, he plays first and Maddox is the DH. Both are hitting clean up in the 4-5 positions in the batting order and have had excellent at bats.

Coach O'Sullivan makes it a point to switch and rotate personnel and has the talent off the bench to do it, so beware if you are keeping a scorecard! The bottom half of his bench is loaded with Junior and Senior talent. Although some may lack the natural skills that their younger counterparts may have on defense, they lack nothing when it comes to game experience and providing hits off the bench. Josh Adams, Jeff Moyer, Ben McMahon and Brison Smith share time with their younger counterparts if the going gets tough in a game and runs are needed.

For example, Jeff Moyer, Cody Dent and Josh Adams can provide different looks at 2B and 3rd bases… short if needed. Depends upon the pitcher an opponent may start with or go to in later innings. If it is a left-handed pitcher, they are likely to see Dent and Moyer at 2nd and 3rd. A right-handed pitcher is likely to see Senior Josh Adams at second and Moyer at third. Either way, you get a solid bat to face off against a starting pitcher You also get a reliable older, experienced line-up at those infield positions, which is key.

The same can be said about their centerfield position. You've got two lefties that play the position and the older of the two, Tyler Thompson, has been getting the starts recently… primarily for defensive purposes and hitting in the seventh spot. Kamm Washington can bring some pop with his bat and will also hit in that 7th spot. When they traveled to Baton Rouge, they gave experience the edge and started Thompson in Friday/Saturday games.

Washington provided a run off of one hit when he was brought in as a pinch hitter during Friday's game. He started for the Gators in CF for Sunday's game. You guessed it, Thompson saw action as a PH on Sunday against LSU. It is remarkable as to how many offensive and defensive parts that O'Sullivan will use this early in the season. Even more remarkable is how well all of the "pieces" will work together to get the job done for him this early in conference play.

4, Nolan Fontana SS (L/R, So.); .359BA, 78AB, 23r, 28h, 14RBI, 19w, 13k (.495 obp).

8, Daniel Pigott LF (R/R, Jr.): .432BA, 81AB, 13r, 35h, 1HR, 20RBI, 3w, 6k (.452 obp).

25, Preston Tucker RF (L/L, Jr.): .374BA, 91AB, 14r, 34h, 5HR, 21RBI, 6w, 10k (.424 obp).

10, Austin Maddox 1B/DH (R/R, So.): .279BA, 86AB, 10r, 24h, 1HR, 10 RBI, 8w, 8k (.340 obp).

35, Brian Johnson 1B/DH/P (LHP, L/L, So.): .314BA, 70AB, 14r, 22h, 11RBI, 6w, 10k (.377 obp).

3, Mike Zunino C (R/R, So.): .329BA, 73AB, 23r, 24h, 5HR, 19RBI, 9w, 16k (.417 obp).

14, Kamm Washington CF/RF (L/L, So.): .364BA, 33AB, 9r, 12h, 6RBI, 6w, 9k (.462 obp).

18, Tyler Thompson CF/pr (L/R, Jr.): .174BA, 23AB, 1r, 4h, 3RBI, 1w, 7k (.208 obp).

2, Josh Adams 2B (R/R, Sr.): .361BA, 72AB, 15r, 26h, 3HR, 19RBI, 8w, 11k (.410 obp).

20, Cody Dent 3B/SS (L/R, So.): .133BA, 15AB, 1r, 2h, 1RBI, 2w, 2k (.235 obp).

41, Jeff Moyer 2B/3B/ph (L/R, Tr. Jr.): .318BA, 22AB, 5r, 7h, 1HR, 4RBI, 2w, 1k (.375 obp).

18, Tyler Thompson CF/pr (L/R, Jr.): .174BA, 23AB, 1r, 4h, 3RBI, 1w, 7k (.208 obp).

30, Vickash Ramjit 1B/ph (R/R, R. So./Tr.): .000BA, 3AB, 1r, 1w (.250 obp).

15, Ben McMahan 1B/C/ph (R/R, Jr.): .242BA, 33AB, 8r, 8h, 2RBI, 3w, 7k (.297 obp).

5, Zack Powers 3B (L/R, Fr.): .235BA, 34AB, 4r, 8h, 5RBI 1w, 9k (.278 obp).

1, Brison Smith CF/ph (R/R, Tr. Sr.): .345, 29AB,8r, 10h, 5RBI, 5w, 2k (.500 obp).

44, Tyler Palmer 3B (R/R, Fr.): .300BA, 10AB, 3r, 3h, 1RBI, 1w, 3k (.364 obp).

Their team batting average is .382, with opponent's batting average at .229; team on base percentage is .401, while the opposition's on base percentage is .277.

PITCHING…Florida did a good job of picking up excellent pitching talent in '09 and really developed it in 2010. By far, they had more freshmen talented enough to contribute right away and contribute in a fashion that benefitted the Gators on weekday games and weekend starts. Many of their freshmen from last year were used with success as weekend relief, with two that had the ability to be weekend starters for Florida in Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson. They are repeating the process this year and are currently Florida's Friday/Saturday starters.

To say that Florida's pitching is deep is an understatement. Consider the following. Last year, Florida had two freshmen (Hudson Randall, Brian Johnson) as weekend starters; they were joined by 2010 weekend Sophomore starter Alex Panteliodis. In 2011, Randall and Johnson remain as starters, but Panteliodis has been used in some weekday starting/relief roles. Panteliodis brings experience to the Florida pitching staff as a starter, but the staff is so deep he barely makes it into their top five pitchers. Their depth is incredible and incredibly talented… it is as diverse a group as you will find in regards to what each can bring to the bump and show the opposition. You could play five games against them and probably not see the same pitcher.

Here is a look at their pitching staff and their statistics, which are off-the-wall excellent in the sixth weekend of play.

11, Hudson Randall (RHP, R/R, So.); .85ERA, 3-0, 31.2IP, 25h, 5r(3e), 1w, 21k (.212 oba).

35, Brian Johnson (LHP, L/L, So.); 1.53ERA, 4-0, 29.1IP, 17h, 5r(5e), 4w, 26k (.168 oba).

22, Karsten Whitson (RHP, R/R, Fr.); 2.52ERA, 3-0, 25.1IP, 23h, 8r(7e), 9w, 26k (.250 oba).

16, Anthony DeSclafani (RHP, R/R, Jr.); 1.12ERA, 3-0, 3SV, 16.IP, 10h, 3r(2e), 2w, 17k (.172 oba).

26, Nick Maronde (lhp, S/L, Jr.); 1.38ERA, 0-0, 1SV, 13.IP, 11h, 3r(2e), 2w, 21k (.224 oba).

13, Tommy Toledo (RHP, R/R, Jr.); 2.40ERA, 2-1, 1SV, 15.IP, 10h, 4r(4e), 3w, 10k (.185 oba).

37, Greg Larson (RHP, R/R, Jr.); 2.40ERA, 0-1, 15.IP, 11h, 4r(4e). 12k (.200 oba).

24, Alex Panteliodis (LHP, L/L, Jr.); 4.00ERA, 2-0, 18.IP, 20h, 8r(8e), 3w, 14k (.278 oba).

10, Austin Maddox (RHP, R/R, So.); 1.12ERA, 1-0, 8.IP, 4h, 1r(1e), 10k (.148 oba).

32, Steven Rodriguez (LHP, L/L, So.); 3.18ERA, 1-0, 1SV, 11.1IP, 13h, 7r(4e), 4w, 9k (.302 oba).

23, Jonathon Crawford (RHP, R/R, Fr.); 4.91ERA, 0-0, 3.2IP, 6h, 3r(2e), 1w, 4k (.316 oba).

29, Matthew Campbell (RHP, R/R, Sr.); 4.76ERA, 0-0, 5.2IP, 9h, 3r(3e), 2w, 6k (.360 oba).

6, Daniel Gibson (LHP, L/L, Fr.); 12.00ERA, 1-0, 3..IP, 9h, 4r(4e), 2w, 3k (.529 oba).

21, Justin Poovey (RHP, R/R, Jr.); 3.86ERA, 0-0, 2.1IP, 2h, 2r(1e), 2w, 1k (.286 oba).

Florida's team ERA is 2.26, while the opposition's team ERA is 6.25; Florida's team on base average .229, while their opposition is giving up .328 on base average.

Brian Johnson (LHP, So.) is not only an excellent Friday starter for the Gators, he doubles as their DH, whether he is on or off the mound. He is the Gators prolific #5 hitter in their batting order (.314BA w/ an on base percentage of .377). Johnson can do it all. Last year, before coming to Carolina Stadium, Johnson's ERA was 3.53 (58.2 IP); his batting average was .375 (48 at bats)… as a freshman. You could say this young man comes in prepared and his talent level is sublime, which is why he was recently given the ball as their Friday guy. He and Saturday starter Hudson Randall have flipped the position since the Miami series and it is a good bet we will see Johnson on Friday in Gainesville.

Johnson has developed a change-up to go with a very good fastball (low 90's), which is the pitch he uses to pound the strike zone… he will force hitters to hit his pitch and is able to effectively work his fastball on both sides of the plate. He will bait hitters to swing throwing the ball in and out of the strike zone and does this well. He will also mix in a good breaking ball to keep batters on their toes. He was effective against us last year on a Saturday start as a freshman. We were able to get our hits and proceed to win that Saturday match-up against Johnson last year; he has gotten better with his control as a Sophomore.

Saturday's Gator pitcher, Hudson Randall (RHP, So.), makes life difficult for opposing batters and their Saturday pitching starters. Randall was offered by the K.C. Royals in the 46th round in 2009. Randall can throw a breaking ball with incredible command and stymied LSU hitters with it all afternoon in last Friday's game. When facing Randall, you can expect him to throw strikes with most of his pitches (21k in 31.2 innings), rarely walking a batter at all (32.2IP; only one walk) and even more rarely flirts with trouble. His sub-1.00 ERA in a little over 31 innings is one of the best averages in college baseball; he could easily be any college team's Friday guy.

Randall did not walk an LSU batter in their Saturday match-up; he didn't reach a 3-count until the fourth inning. He went that deep in the count only five times. That is incredible control for a pitcher and frustration for a batter knowing he has little chance of getting a walk from a breaking ball pitcher. It will certainly change a hitter's approach. Randall has given the Gators an average of 7 innings in all three of his starts, so the opposing pitcher or pitchers (collection…in the way of relief pitching for Carolina) needs to settle in on Saturday and try to go toe-to-toe with him against Gator batters for at least that long.

Their Mr. Sunday, Karsten Whitson (6'4" RHP, Fr.) was a 9th round draft pick by the San Diego Padres last year. Yes, 9th round; he is that good. He passed up $2.1 million with the Padres to play his college ball at Florida. Coming out of high school, the young man had a low to mid 90's fastball that was consistently over the plate with good control. He has the ability to throw a plus breaking ball and good change-up. The two additional pitches Whitson possesses is the reason why the Padres were so interested in him.

On the college level, his 2.52 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 25 innings of work shows he has adjusted well to the college game and its hitters. He has started against Miami and LSU and averages a pretty solid +5 innings for the Gators in his starts; he gets hit often (28 hits) but few of them score (7 earned runs)., a 4 to 1 hit/run ratio. That illustrates just how good his control is and why he did not need much time pitching weekday games (if any) to get him ready for a weekend start.

Their closer of choice, Anthony DeSclafani, has gotten 3 saves all in weekend work. Throws a very nice breaking ball that is (more or less) a slurve pitch. It is a tough pitch to hit and he used it against LSU hitters on Friday night as his out pitch. He will mix it with a mid 90's fastball that has great accuracy. He is tough to hit and has effectively replaced Kevin Chapman, who was Florida's ace closer (8 saves) last year.

DeSclafani's closing role is accompanied by Nick Marone (1 save), Tommy Toledo (had shoulder surgery in '09) with a save and Steven Rodriguez with a save. Such is the depth of the Florida bullpen and late-inning relief/closers; five of them possess three year's experience on the college level as Juniors. They are loaded. Panteliodis (LHP, Jr.), Larson (RHP, Jr.) and Toledo (RHP, Jr.) are solid juniors that provide excellent relief. They are typically used as their weekday starters (Panteliodis and Toledo); all three see action on weekends as early, mid and late inning closers. Their ERA and innings pitched speak for themselves.

This Staff is deep, young and very, very good. It is the reason why the Gators are the best ball club in college baseball right now. They will give up a few hits, but won't readily give you runs; they bend but don't break. This is a staff that is overseen by their head coach Kevin O'Sullivan and he has done an admirable job of recruiting them, keeping them out of the grips of pro offers and getting them to perform for the Gators. He has them on track for repeating a trip back to Omaha in '11 and this staff could be the difference between "two and BBQ" and getting their first National Championship in baseball.

Thoughts concerning this series. Both teams will tell you the other is carrying the bigger mark. Sure, the Yardcocks are the ‘10 National Champions and that is as big a target for teams to aim for, particularly if your team went two and BBQ in the field of eight in Omaha. But what matters is what you've done today; and today the Gators are college baseball's number one team. Their target is in real time and is just as big. Should be a great series and will really test the Gamecock pitching staff; our offense will receive their biggest test to date, possibly the year (given this game is in Gainesville) against Gator arms.

The Cocks are man enough to take a few from the Gators, especially this early in the season. But it will take everything they've got to do it… good defense, good pitching are the primary keys. Hitting "is what it is" against Florida pitching. Their pitching can and will give up hits, but not many. Therefore, limit their hitters with good pitching and have 100% fielding, stay close with the score and we will have a chance for the taking towards the end of the game. In essence, get mentally ready to play a series against a post-season team and play the best 27-out game you can play.

To date, this Gator team is 1-2 when trailing a team after six innings. They did this against giant killer Florida State in Tampa and against Georgia Southern in Gainesville. It can be done. The Yardcocks can do it with excellent play in the field and a little luck. If not, the season is very young and conference play will offer USC future chances and opportunities to bond as a team.

Gamecock Anthem Top Stories