Preview: Gators-Gamecocks for the SEC

The SEC regular season championship will be on the line this week when the Florida Gators come to town for a three-game series with the South Carolina Gamecocks. All three contests of the highly anticipated series will be televised as the race for a title comes down to the final weekend of the season. Look inside as John Klauber previews the No. 4-ranked Florida Gators.

Florida

(38-12 overall; 20-7 SEC; 10-7 Away games [all]; 7-5 away games [SEC only])

National Polls: Baseball America Poll...#4 Florida, #6 So. Carolina; USA Today/ESPN Poll...#5 Florida, #7 So. Carolina; NCBWA Poll...#5 Florida, #9 So. Carolina; Collegiate Baseball Poll...#5 Florida, #6 So. Carolina.

RPI Rankings: NCAA Mens Baseball RPI Rankings... South Carolina #14 (#19 last week), Florida #4 (#2 last week). This game is for all the marbles and for bragging rights in the SECe and SEC regular season. For Carolina, winning two of three puts them in a very good position of hosting in the post season. RPI rankings before last weekend's series to host was roughly a 20% chance (winning 5 of 6 games) for Carolina. Now, all they need is to win two of the next three to host. Florida is almost assured of hosting due to its high RPI rankings, whereas Carolina came through the back door to claim its prize... much to the surprise of many "mathematical experts" in the field of college baseball.

SEC Players of the Week... Sam Dyson, South Carolina; SEC Pitcher of the Week. Dyson pitched a six-hit complete game shutout over the Razorbacks in last Saturday's game in Fayetteville. Dyson limited the Razorbacks (who ranked second in the SEC in hitting and runs scored) to just six hits and walked only two the entire afternoon.

Nolan Fontana, Florida; SEC Freshman of the Week. Fontana batted .385 (5 for 13) with five runs, three RBI and three walks in Florida's four victories (last week) without committing any errors... He keyed the Gators' first sweep of Georgia in Gainesville by hitting .300 (3 for 10) with three walks and two runs. Fontana was 1 for 4 with a double in the opener with the Bulldogs, then drew two walks on Saturday. He finished the series by going 2 for 4 with a pair of runs, a walk and a stolen base. Nolan is currently fourth among Gator hitters with a .293 batting average and leads the squad with 39 walks. He has committed one error in 214 chances and has a .995 fielding percentage.

There are several Florida hitters which need to be mentioned and will play an important role in our series with them. There are four freshman hitters which are huge in Coach Kevin O'Sullivan's plans of attack. Fontana (lead-off hitter), Austin Maddox (#4 hitter) and Brian Johnson (#5 hitter... when he is not a weekend starter as a pitcher) and Mike Zunino (typically hitting in the 9th spot) are Florida's "fabulous offensive freshmen" and they are an incremental part of how the offensive straw stirs the Florida drink. They make things happen for the Gators offensively.

Fontana will start things off doing what a lead-off man does best... getting on base. His on base percentage is .437; the second highest on the team... so he is doing his job. Maddox hitting in the four spot usually guarantees that something will happen with Fontana on base. Maddox is a very good situational hitter and is in the same pool as some of the "elite" SEC hitters of the past... very much like a Pedro Alvarez (Vandy) or even a bit like Justin Smoak. He is the type of hitter that can hit for on base percentage or hit it out of the park.

He is special and he is hitting more and more like a sophomore would at the end of the year... just keep in mind that he is a freshman. Maddox is currently fourth among SEC hitters in RBI (63), home runs (17) and total bases (139). Maddox gets some help from his sophomore teammate Preston Tucker, who (typically) bats third and before Maddox. Tucker is a great hitter and more often than not, both Fontana and Tucker are the ducks on the pond looking for Maddox to advance them.

Based upon statistical analysis, Florida is pretty generic at the bottom (5-9) of their line-up. If you can pitch to Tucker and Maddox with no one on base, you can stay out of big innings. Where they can absolutely kill you is on the base pads... they have speed to burn and they will steal bases to put pressure on opposing pitchers. In fact, the basis Coach O'Sullivan's theory on base stealing is "because it forces opposing pitchers to throw more fastballs, giving UF's power hitters better pitches to hit".

Case in point... against Arkansas in a tight Sunday game (4/25). Florida's bench called for a double steal (from first to second and from third to home) on a hit and run (on a bunt along the third base line) just to break the tie and give Florida the win. It worked. Florida won that game 2-1. We will see more situational base running than we have seen before when we face off against them; they do it well. It is excellent prep for us and post season play. The kind of baseball that makes the CWS soooo interesting.

They also are a solid fielding team. They are currently #1 among all SEC schools for fielding percentage with a team fielding percentage of .978; South Carolina is currently 6th with a .974 fielding percentage. Florida's starting weekend pitching staff takes advantage of the fielding that exists behind them...typically two of the three starters are freshmen (Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson). Florida starters on the weekend throw tons of strikes, but do not register high strike out numbers. A lot of hits go to die in the infield or popped up in the outfield. Their young gun pitchers do a good job of controlling their game. That, in a nutshell, is the story behind Florida. They do a good job of taking you away from your game and playing their game. That is behind their success this season. Florida's starting line-up:

#4, Nolan Fontana, SS (L-R, Fr.) Lead-off hitter; .293BA, 167AB, 43r, 49h, 2HR, 20RBI, 39w, 18k (.437obp).

#17 Matt Den Dekker, CF (L-L, Sr.) 2nd slot; .358BA, 193AB, 52r, 69h, 10HR, 38RBI, 22w, 44k (.434obp).

#25 Preston Tucker, 1B (L-L, So.) 3rd slot; .335BA, 185AB, 40r, 62h, 9HR, 37RBI, 36w, 21k (.445obp).

#10 Austin Maddox, 3B (R-R, Fr.) 4th slot; .340BA, 203AB, 40r, 69h, 17HR, 63RBI, 7w, 36k (.376obp).

#35 Brian Johnson, DH/St.P (L-L, LHP, Fr.) 5th slot (not pitching); .375BA, 48AB,9r, 18h, 3HR, 12RBI, 7w, 10k (.446obp).

#8 Daniel Pigott, RF (R-R, So.) 5th/6th slot; .280BA, 118AB, 20r, 33h, 1HR, 21RBI, 9w, 15k (.338obp).

#2 Josh Adams, 2B (R-R, Jr.) 6th/7th slot; 225BA, 178AB, 33r, 40h, 7HR, 31 RBI, 24w, 41k (.320obp).

#18 Tyler Thompson, LF (L-R, So.) 7th/8th slot; .283BA, 113AB, 17r, 32h, 1HR, 19RBI, 8w, 40k (.354obp).

#3 Mike Zunino, C (R-R, Fr.) 9th slot; .281BA, 146AB, 27r, 41h, 8HR, 35RBI, 8w, 33k (.331obp).

Others that are seeing significant playing time in rotation with the batting order (SEC play only):

#15 Ben McMahon, C (R-R, So.) ph or C; .396BA, 48AB, 9r, 19h, 2HR, 8RBI, 1w, 14k (.408obp).

#9 Johnathon Pigott, rf (R-R, Sr.) insert at RF; .277BA, 65AB, 14r, 18h, 2HR, 11RBI, 8w, 20k (.392obp).

#1 Bryson Smith, dh (R-R, Tr.Jr.) DH/Johnson pitching; .280BA, 82AB, 14r, 23h, 3HR, 21RBI, 9w, 15k (.344obp).

#12 Jerico Weitzel, 3b (L-R, So.) 3b insert; .278BA, 36AB, 8r, 10h, 1HR, 4RBI, 8w, 8k (.409obp).

#20 Cody Dent, ss/2b (L-R, Fr.) rot. as starter; .267BA, 15AB, 4r, 4h, 1RBI, 3w, 3k (.389obp).

Florida pitching... As long as I have been familiar with Coach O'Sullivan and his days as Clemson's pitching coach (and recruiting coordinator), he has always been the type of pitching coach (make no mistake... he holds that job at Florida today) that wasn't big on walking batters. He always professed the value and importance of throwing for strikes; not for balls. His weekend starters have pretty much done that or else they wouldn't be his weekend starters. They understand what he is looking for from their performances, and it has cost a few their jobs over the course of this season.

Florida's likely starter for Thursday night is Alex Panteliodis (L-L, LHP, So.) 8-2, 3.34ERA, 72.2IP, 62h, 27r(27e), 15w, 53k (.234 oba). Panteliodis is a bit of an anomaly. He possesses a very accurate fastball and some good off-speed pitches to accompany that fastball. He has a good ERA, very good strike-out to walk ratio and hitters are only hitting .234 against him. But, he typically doesn't go much more beyond six innings (he went 98 pitches in 6 innings against Bama on a Saturday start). You just don't hear much about Alex; he did win 8 games this year for the Gators.

Panteliodis is a very good pitcher that somehow is missed by the (viewing) public because he flies under the radar. I read countless editorials on his performances this year; most will tell you that he "missed his spot" or "didn't have his best stuff" in the game,.... but if you look in the box score, you will see he had very few walks given up and more strikes thrown for pitches. Usually means the defense behind the pitcher is helping him look good and that is usually the case with Alex. Their biggest surprise has been Saturday starter Hudson Randall, (R-R, RHP, Fr.) 6-3, 2.96ERA, 70IP, 75h, 27r(23e), 16w, 49k (.272oba). Hudson is a great competitor from the State of Georgia... how UGA and GIT didn't get him is beyond me! Randall has a great sinker/slider mix and a very good feel for the change-up pitch that he will throw. He will throw a lot of fastballs early (to start the side), then starts to mix it up more after the start of the side has seen the fastball. He likes using his defense behind him to assist in getting outs and can entice the best of hitters to hit into gloved outs. He is an incredible talent as a freshman; his control on the mound is not normal at his age or at this level.

Brian Johnson (L-L, LHP, Fr.) 5-2 3.53ERA, 58.2IP, 65h, 28r(23e), 11w, 41k (.279 oba), is also listed above with Florida's offensive power. Johnson is one heck of a batter and can swing with the best of them. Recently, he has been slinging with the best of them as the Gators 3rd weekend starter...possibly against us this Friday. Johnson has incredible mound presence for a Freshman and very good command of his left-handed pitches. He pounds the strike zone and essentially forces batters to hit his pitch. He has developed a nice change-up to work with his fastball (high velocity fastball in the 91-94 mph range) and works the fastball to both sides of the plate. He can go in and out of the strike zone very well... to bait a hitter to swing at his pitch. Good breaking ball that keeps hitters off-balance. Tough to hit and goes the distance... typically in the mid 80s to high 90s pitch count.

Florida starters work to get to their relievers. Florida relief is very good. Their closer, Kevin Chapman (L-L, LHP, Jr.) 3-0 (8SV), 1.26ERA, 35.2IP, 24h, 7r(5e), 6w, 37k (.185oba) has been incredible for Florida this Spring. His fastball is low 90's and it is an explosive fastball. He pretty much throws fastballs and most hitters swing and miss it. Chapman could be a top round pick this year... projected to go in the 2nd or 4th rounds. Jeff Barfield (R-R, RHP, Tr. Sr.) 3-0 (2SV), 3.86ERA, 28IP, 24h, 13r(12e), 2w, 17k (.226) is a little right-hander with a big breaking ball that he will throw for strikes. He is an "older kid" (coming up from the JuCo ranks) who has learned how to pitch and he is very effective. They use Nick Maronde (S-L, LHP, So.) 2-0 (1SV), 5.92ERA,241IP, 20h, 23r(16e), 24w, 32k (.225 oba) and Barfield as a left-right combination to finish off games that need to match-up with an opposing team's L-R batting combinations.

Maronde had been a steady starter for OOC games on the weekend to start the year. He comes with the heat and sometimes is "effectively wild", where he may walk two batters then strike out the side. This style of pitching has worked best for O'Sullivan coming out of the pen as Maronde has been a very good middle inning relief pitcher, primarily used to slow the tempo of a game down when the opposition has hit Florida starters/early relief. Maronde has a good fastball but also possesses three excellent breaking pitches... two sliders and a curveball. His arm noticeably slows down when he throws these pitches, but the motion doesn't affect the accuracy of the three (pitches). Maronde is extremely tough when he is on.

Most of the other relievers (who we will most likely see) all throw for strikes. Greg Larson (R-R, RHP, So.) 3-1 (2SV), 6.52ERA, 29IP, 39h, 23r(21e), 3w, 25k (.315 oba) provides early relief as a 2nd/3rd relief pitcher on weekends. Larson got a significant amount of time to pitch recently against UGA (Friday), where he went 4 innings and gave up just two hits while striking out three batters. Anthony DeScalafani (R-R, RHP, So.) 2-3, 7.34ERA 34.1IP, 46h, 30r(28e), 6w, 28k (.326oba) and Steven Rodriguez (L-L, LHP, Fr.) 0-0, 21IP,23h,7r(6e),4w, 20k (.267oba) are both capable of stifling opposing bats, just not on a grand scale as those above. They can still throw strikes and use their defense to get the job done.

Florida is a team that pitches well, plays defense well, hits the ball and puts it into play well and they run the bases well. They do it well enough to give us a run for the money this weekend. If you are a Carolina fan, you have to hope that the Freshman jinx falls upon them... that their freshmen are looking forward more towards post-season play and reading their press clippings. You have to hope that they have bought into the notion that they are already SEC Regular Season Champs.

On the flipside, South Carolina's guys have to be ready to play post-season style baseball; right now, at home in Carolina Stadium... starting Thursday night. There is no heavier burden than a great opportunity... this series has to weigh a ton to each Carolina player going into it this Thursday.

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