|2002 SEASON PREVIEW|
|Gators begin first season under Pat McMahon|
Everything's new in Florida baseball. New coaching staff, new game times, new baseball camps, new uniforms, new logos. Newfound respect.
New head coach Pat McMahon has brought a newfound spirit and energy to the program. In only his first five months in Gainesville, McMahon has already made a significant impact as the Gators completed a spirited four-week fall baseball practice schedule on November 3rd. It held its first annual Gator Baseball "Home Run Derby" and raised over $3,000 to benefit the Children's Miracle Network at Shands Children's Hospital. McMahon also initiated two new fall events- a first-ever Parent's Weekend and a "Meet the Players" evening for fans. In addition, he made several outstanding changes to the uniforms the Gators will wear as he brought back the traditional interlocking "UF" and introduced orange jersey tops. McMahon also made changes on the infield landscape and to the schedule, moving game times up a half-hour to accommodate families and children. He has initiated several new baseball camps for youngsters including a Thanksgiving Camp, Winter Holiday Camp and Father-Son Camp. And most importantly, he has used his in-state contacts to shift the program's recruiting focus back to the state of Florida while inking eight of his nine fall signees from within the state.
All accomplished in just five months despite a six-week summer stint as head coach of the USA Baseball team. But McMahon is just getting started.
"We will always do things in a first-class manner with high principles," said McMahon, who will wear jersey number 26 to honor Florida's all-time winningest baseball coach Dave Fuller. "We will commit to excellent performance. We will work hard to be the very best we can be. And we will work as hard as we can to do the little things well because those things become big things. Those are the things I feel are extremely important along with great work ethic, integrity and doing things the right way."
The coaching staff of McMahon and assistants Ross Jones (pitching) and John Cohen (hitting) shift its attention to the 2002 season where the Gators return 23 letterwinners from a team that finished 35-27 (16-14 in the SEC). Florida advanced to both the SEC Tournament and NCAA Regionals for the program's 24th and 19th times respectively and won 24 of its last 38 games after battling back from an 0-6 SEC and 11-13 start. In addition, the Gators return eight seniors, six position starters and two starting pitchers.
"The experience of our returning players will be important," McMahon said. "They have SEC experience and leadership is very important. As you go through a season, experience becomes a wonderful teacher. We need to maintain consistent performance. We need to practice and play as hard as we can to represent the University of Florida in a first-class manner and compete with class. We want to do all the things we can do to be the best team we possibly can."
"We have eight seniors and we put a lot of emphasis on senior leadership this fall," McMahon said. "They've been through the rigors of a full season. Every game from day one is important. We want to improve as the season goes on and improve in all facets of the game. With a coaching change, that can be a little difficult on the upperclassmen. But we expect a lot from our seniors and we want all of our players to handle the season and all its demands the right way."
Six position starters return to lead the Gators. All South Region selection Matt Goss returns to his post in centerfield. The senior hit .356 and the led UF with 11 home runs, 54 RBI and a .587 slugging percentage in 2001. Junior catcher Brian Rose returns behind the plate. Rose led all SEC catchers last season as he threw out 25 runners attempting to steal and contributed .290 hitting and 43 RBI. Senior second baseman Mark Kiger (.314, 31 RBI, 19 SB) is back in the infield and could see action at either shortstop or second base, senior powerhitter Ryan Shealy (16 HR in 114 career games) returns at first base and junior infielders Pat Osborn (.282, 5 HR, 38 RBI) and Aaron Sobieraj (.274, 25 RBI) are both back with infield experience. Senior Aaron Davidson (.319, 6 HR, 30 SB) will see action at either second base or designated hitter and three other players- outfielder Ben Harrison, OF/INF Matt Maley and transfer catcher Mario Garza (Stanford) all have significant collegiate experience.
Pitching will be an important focus for the Gators as UF loses five key contributors from its 2001 squad. Senior Keith Ramsey put together an outstanding 2001 season as UF's closer. He went 4-3 and led the Gators in saves (9), appearances (31) and ERA (2.24). He is expected to move into the starting rotation. Junior RHP Alex Hart (3-4, 5.88 ERA) and senior LHP Jimmy Ramshaw (5-3, 5.80 ERA) both return in their starting roles. Several others will be expected to step forward.
"Obviously pitching will be a huge emphasis as it is a crucial factor on any ballclub and we have yet to define roles," McMahon said. "We have a chance to hit real well and be a decent offensive ballclub. The depth of the outfield should be a strength, but we have some questionable areas and we've had some off-season injuries to key players. How those players respond will be critical."
Florida must make up for the loss of three position starters including outfielder Jason Dill (.403, 24 RBI), shortstop Kevin Estrada (.351, 35 steals) and outfielder Peter Nystrom (.353, 48 RBI). Also departed include starting pitcher Keith Brice (2-6, 7.64 ERA) and relief pitchers Kenny Birch (1-0, 4.80 ERA), Eddie Rojas (10-1 in his career), Joey Simon (17-8 in his career) and Jay Belflower (5-3, 7.23 ERA) who signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks following the 2001 MLB Draft.
"We've been extremely pleased with the work ethic," McMahon said. "The team has committed itself to our off-season weight training and our developmental throwing plan. They're also understanding our team concept- I becomes 'G', with 'G' meaning Gators. That's a critical issue because the players need to accept their roles on the club. Our goal for the season is to improve on a day-by-day basis. We have very high expectations and we want to surround ourselves with people who expect nothing but the best on and off the field. This fall, we had the highest grade point average in Gator baseball history as 16 guys achieved a 3.0 or better. That was a great start academically."
2002 POSITION BY POSITION ANALYSIS
"Brian's leadership behind the plate will be critically important to our pitching staff," McMahon said.
Junior Mario Garza will provide depth at catcher. A left-handed hitter from Melbourne, Garza transferred to Florida after lettering two seasons at Stanford. He displayed strong hitting during fall drills. Also contributing behind the plate are junior college transfers Joe Mercadante and Matt Cresap along with true freshman Chris Craine.
"We hope Ryan Shealy will have a big year for us," McMahon said. "He worked extremely hard in the off-season and has done a great job of leading with his work ethic."
Several other players could see action at first base including freshman Wes Swackhamer, sophomore Jamie Keel and juniors Pat Osborn and Mario Garza. Junior Aaron Sobieraj also started 13 games at first base last season.
Senior Aaron Davidson also returns to the squad after starting 57 games last year including nine at second base. In 2001, Davidson became just the eighth player in UF history to steal 30+ bases in a season as he hit .319 with six home runs and 39 RBI.
Junior Aaron Sobieraj (70 career starts/.329 career average) could also see action at second base. Among the newcomers are junior Matt Cresap and freshmen Jon Tucker, Stephen Barton and Ben Zeskind.
Replacing Estrada's production will be a difficult task, but Florida has seven players to help fill the void led by two veterans- senior Mark Kiger and junior Pat Osborn. Both started at infield positions last season- Kiger at second base and Osborn at third base (58 games). Also expected to play shortstop include Aaron Sobieraj and redshirt freshman C.J. Smith along with newcomers Jon Tucker, Ben Zeskind and Matt Cresap.
Also factoring in at third base are sophomore Matt Maley, redshirt freshman C.J. Smith along with junior Bobby Hicks and freshmen Daniel Brooks and Ben Zeskind.
Senior David Klebonis also returns to the mix with three years of experience. The two-time SEC Academic honor roll selection provides solid hitting and could see action in right or left field. Sophomore Ben Harrison (.270, 4 HR, 24 RBI) provided a glimpse of his potential after playing 35 games in his first collegiate season in 2001 and sophomore Matt Maley, a 37th round draft pick in 2000, possesses a strong arm and is a solid all-around player.
Also looking for playing time in the outfield include newcomers Bobby Hicks, Jake Riordan, Wes Swackhamer, Jeff Corsaletti, Stephen Barton and Daniel Brooks.
"Obviously pitching will be a huge emphasis as it is a crucial factor on any ballclub," McMahon said. "We have yet to define roles. We have to be strike zone dominant and be able to make plays behind them. We have a lot of pitchers in terms of numbers but we need several to step forward. Those who compete on the mound, hold runners, field their position and step forward with consistency will get the ball."
Ramsey, who put together one of most successful relief seasons in UF history, will move to into the starting rotation. The lefthander led the Gators in saves (9), appearances (31), earned run average (2.24) and tied for the team lead in strikeouts (56 in 52.1 IP). After earning Alasport.com All SEC second team honors, Ramsey was drafted in the 11th Round and offered a contract by the Cincinnati Reds but elected to return to the Gators for his senior season.
Last year both Hart and Ramshaw completed rehab for elbow injuries which required Tommy John surgery. With every start in 2001, both pitchers gained strength and confidence as the duo combined for an 8-7 record, 128.0 innings and 97 strikeouts. Hart enters his junior season after pitching into the fifth inning in his last five starts while opponents hit only .239 against him last season. Ramshaw (5-3, 5.80 ERA in 2001) pitched into the sixth inning in nine of his 14 starts and tied for the team lead in strikeouts (56) in 2001. His most spectacular outing was a career-high nine-strikeout, 8.0 inning shut out at Vanderbilt. He also completed an impressive fall and enters the season with a 6-4 career record with 71 strikeouts in 90.0 career innings pitched.
Several other Gators return to the squad. Junior RHP Ben Hedgecock (six APP in 2001) completed an impressive fall along with senior RHP Kevin Coleman, sophomore LHPs Matt Bomeisl (13 APP), sophomore RHP Scot Drucker (2-0, 6.41 ERA) and sophomore LHP Tom Potter (5 APP). Two Gators- Pat Rumble and Ryan Sadowski return from off season elbow injuries along with sophomore RHP Mike Mlotkowski. Aaron Sobieraj, who saw mound action in as a freshman in 2000, could also be a factor.
Florida also welcomes seven newcomers including Tulane transfer Matt Foster (9-4, 3.51 ERA in 2001), junior college transfer Jamie Goldfarb and five freshmen- Dave Bartelt, Tommy Boss, Connor Falkenbach, Ryan Kennedy and Mike Pete. The Sarasota native Foster helped lead Tulane to a CWS appearance last season.