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Tuesday March 5, 2013A look at where Gators baseball team stands as it heads into a five-game week

Updated: 5:50pm, March 5

Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan

Florida baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan continues to search for ways to maximize his team's potential.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It was a 10-day stretch foreign to the Florida baseball program since head coach Kevin O’Sullivan took over in 2008.

Starting with a home loss to Georgia Southern on Feb. 20 in which the Gators committed six errors, Florida dropped six consecutive games – all at McKethan Stadium – to fall to 3-7 after 10 games.

You could say the mood around the ballpark was a little chippy for a program with three consecutive trips to the College World Series on its résumé.

The Gators finally snapped the skid with a 6-4 win over Miami on Saturday night, handing Miami its first loss of the season. The Gators followed that victory with a series win over the Hurricanes on Sunday, taking the rubber game 6-3 thanks to a four-run third inning that provided starter Eric Hanhold with an early cushion.

The back-to-back wins delivered a measure of relief for the Gators heading into a busy week. The Gators play at Jacksonville on Tuesday, and then return home to face the Dolphins on Wednesday before hosting Indiana in a three-game series this weekend.

“As far as we’re concerned, winning feels a lot better than losing,’’ O’Sullivan said after Sunday’s win. “We’ll take it, but we’ve still got some work to do.”

The Gators are just 12 games into a 56-game regular season, so there remains a ton to learn about this team, one with just two seniors on the roster.

A good start for the Gators to turn their fortunes around would be simply to climb back to .500 or better before opening SEC play March 15 at home against Kentucky.

Sophomore outfielder/pitcher Justin Shafer, who had a pair of doubles and an RBI in Sunday’s series-clinching win, is optimistic better days are ahead.

“Just like losing is contagious, so is winning,’’ Shafer said. “Hopefully we just keep the roll on. It’s all about confidence. You win a couple of games, you’re confidence level goes up.”

Let’s take a look at some current factors the Gators face as they seek to improve:

REPLACING RICHIE

Richie Martin

The Gators have had their issues early on, but freshman shortstop Richie Martin was not one of them. Martin had reached base safely in the first 12 games of his college career and was riding a 10-game hitting streak (.357, 15-for-42) when he squared to bunt in the fourth inning of Sunday’s game.

He had also been steady defensively since an error in his debut, making just one over the next 11 games.

However, the news Monday was not good. Martin (photo, left) suffered a broken finger on his right hand when his hand slid up the barrel and was hit by the pitch. Martin, batting .327 as the leadoff man, is expected to be out three to four weeks.

O’Sullivan turned to senior Cody Dent to replace Martin on Sunday. Dent is expected to get the bulk of the playing time in Martin’s absence. A sure-handed fielder who started the season in center field and has significant experience at third base, Dent faces a tough task to match Martin in the batter’s box. Dent is hitting .172 (5-for-29) with no homers and three RBIs.

A STOUT SEC

SEC logo

Have you checked out the latest national rankings of late? If the pundits know what they are talking about, the SEC is going to be a dogfight every night.

Baseball America has Vanderbilt ranked second, Mississippi State third, South Carolina sixth, Ole Miss seventh, LSU eighth, Kentucky 11th and Arkansas No. 16.

The other polls offer similar respect to the league. The Gators face six of the seven SEC teams currently in Baseball America’s Top 25, missing only Arkansas on the regular-season schedule.

BETTER PLATE APPROACH

O’Sullivan made it clear in a team meeting after Friday’s loss to Miami that he wanted to see the Gators have better at-bats. During Florida’s six-game losing streak, it left 52 runners on base, including nine or more four times. They also made some uncharacteristic mistakes on the bases.

The pep talk seems to have resonated. In the two wins over Miami the Gators scored 12 runs and stranded 11 runners.

Thus far the hottest bats in the lineup belong to Shafer, Martin and Zack Powers. Shafer is hitting a team-leading .413 with eight extra-base hits and six RBIs entering Tuesday night’s game at Jacksonville. Meanwhile, Powers is batting .351 with a team-high three homers and 11 RBIs.

While Martin is out, O’Sullivan could use more production from second baseman Casey Turgeon (.245), catcher Taylor Gushue (.237) and sophomore Josh Tobias (.192). Center fielder Harrison Bader has shown signs of being a good potential top-of-the-order player. Bader is hitting .261 and has three stolen bases in five attempts.

STAY STEADY DEFENSIVELY

Casey Turgeon

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Gators’ young season was a rash of errors they made in the first week. The Gators committed 15 errors in their first five games, including a head-scratching six in the loss to Georgia Southern.

Those close to the program figured it was an anomaly and it appears to have been. Over the last seven games Florida has played error-free five times and has made just three errors.

With Martin out, the Turgeon (photo, left) and Dent duo is strong up the middle though Dent lacks Martin’s range. Tobias is solid when he is at third and Bader has good defensive skills in center. Gushue has a team-leading five errors from behind the plate as he continues to adjust to his first full-time starting assignment.

MORE STARTER INNINGS

A former All-ACC catcher at Virginia, O’Sullivan has a reputation as one of the best college coaches in developing arms and managing pitching staffs.

He is still trying to find the right buttons to push with this staff. First, he lost projected No. 2 starter Karsten Whitson for the season due to a shoulder procedure. The Gators have already used 14 pitchers – the same total as last season in 67 games -- and seven of those are freshmen (six true, one redshirt).

Johnathon Crawford

Florida is currently ranked 11th in the SEC with a 4.26 team ERA. O’Sullivan reiterated following the Miami series that the Gators need to get more innings from their starters to help save the bullpen.

While No. 1 starter Jonathon Crawford (photo) has thrown 15 innings in three starts – Crawford tossed a season-high six innings in a no-decision Friday against Miami – no other starter among the group of Tucker Simpson, Eric Hanhold, Kennan Kish or Shafer has been able to get through five innings.

The lack of innings from the starters has meant extended work for the bullpen. Four relievers (Jay Carmichael, Ryan Harris, Daniel Gibson and closer Johnny Magliozzi) have already appeared in seven or more games. Harris leads the staff in innings pitch with 15 1/3.

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