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Monday April 28, 2014 Five reasons UF's baseball team leads SEC entering home stretch of regular season

Updated: 4:25pm, April 28

Rally caps

Maybe rally caps have helped, but not as much as Florida's pitching during its turnaround season.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – You know it’s going good for the Gators baseball team when it loses midweek games to Jacksonville and Florida A&M – and still moves up in a couple of the national polls.

The reason for the faith in the Gators is the way they responded. Florida swept Missouri over the weekend to improve to 30-15, 15-6 in the Southeastern Conference. The Gators have won eight consecutive SEC games to take a three-game lead over South Carolina in the East with three league series remaining.

The Gators’ 6-5 win Sunday over Missouri was their 30th of the season, one more than they had last season (29-30). Florida has also surpassed last season’s win total (14-16) in SEC play.

So what’s going on at McKethan Stadium? Did Mike Zunino and Co. sneak back into the lineup to turn around the program’s fortunes quickly after a disappointing 2013?

Nope.

Rather some good old-fashioned baseball. Here are five reasons the Gators lead the SEC heading into the home stretch of the regular season:

PITCHING, PITCHING AND PITCHING

When you start comparing the offensive numbers from last season to this season, it’s remarkable how similar they are. The Gators hit .269 last season, and are batting .269 this year.

Logan Shore

Florida averaged 4.8 runs per game in 2013, 4.7 runs through 45 games in 2014. A year ago, the Gators left an average of 7.5 runners on base per game. This year: 7.5. The team’s power numbers and fielding percentage are similar as well.

The big difference is pitching. The Gators’ ERA has improved from 3.92 to 3.23 and Florida is allowing more than half a run less in 2014 than 2013 (from 4.4 runs allowed per game to 3.8). The team’s WHIP has improved from 1.31 to 1.23.

Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan is known for his ability to recruit and develop pitching staffs and 2014 is one of his best jobs yet. Starters Logan Shore (5-2, 1.76 ERA, pictured above) and Aaron Rhodes (5-2, 2.08) were excellent in the Missouri series, highlighted by Rhodes’ one-hitter in a 5-0 win Saturday.

The bullpen has also been superb, with seven different pitchers recording at least one save. Ryan Harris (2-1, 2.70 ERA) has a team-high four saves while Rhodes and Bobby Poyner have three apiece. Over the last 10 games – Florida is 8-2 with a pair of SEC sweeps – the pitching staff has a 2.08 ERA and has allowed only 72 hits in 91 innings.

TIMELY HITTING

They might be hitting for the same average as last season, but more of the hits have come at the right time. UF has five walk-off wins after Ryan Larson’s game-winning single with two outs in the 10th inning Sunday.

Florida’s lineup is producing more in the clutch, batting .291 with runners in scoring position – 11 points higher than a year ago (.280). The Gators have won eight games in their last at-bat.

WINNING AT HOME

Despite the back-to-back losses to Jacksonville and Florida A&M, the Gators are not being kind to visiting teams at McKethan Stadium.

Florida is 21-8 at home compared to 20-16 last season. In four home series against SEC foes, the Gators are 11-1, sweeping LSU, Georgia and Missouri. The only home conference loss was a 9-3 loss to Arkansas on March 16.

ONE-RUN, EXTRA-INNING GAMES

The Gators often did not rise to the occasion in one-run games in 2013. Florida lost 10 of 17 one-run games and was only 2-4 in extra innings.

Different season, different story in 2014. Florida is 12-6 in one-run games and 6-2 in extra innings.

Another important factor in Florida’s success has been its ability to avoid prolonged slumps. While the losses on consecutive nights to Jacksonville and Florida A&M raised some eyebrows, the Gators quickly rebounded with a 7-1 win over Missouri on Friday night behind Shore’s strong start. Florida has not lost three consecutive games all season.

GUSHUE STAYS STEADY

The Gators continue to put up modest power numbers. Florida hit only 28 home runs in 59 games (0.47 per game) last season and that figure has dropped slightly in 2014 – 19 home runs in 45 games (0.42 per game).

However, the man in the middle of the lineup – junior catcher Taylor Gushue – has been a steady force. Gushue leads the Gators in the Triple Crown categories with four home runs (tied with Casey Turgeon), 36 RBIs and a .335 batting average.

BONUS REASON

The Gators were 13-6 and preparing to host No. 1-ranked Florida State in mid-March when sophomore outfielder Harrison Bader was cleared to return following a suspension that cost him the season’s first 19 games.

Bader’s defense and offensive contributions have helped the Gators maintain a winning pace. Florida is 17-9 in the 26 games since Bader’s return. Meanwhile, Bader has hit .284 with six extra-base hits, 13 RBIs and seven stolen bases.

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