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Tuesday April 10, 2012Gauging the Gators as they head to Tallahassee for a showdown with FSU

Updated: 2:06pm, April 10

Jonathon Crawford and Mike Zunino

(Photo: Gators catcher Mike Zunino making a trip to the mound to talk with starter Jonathon Crawford).

The Florida-Florida State baseball rivalry is renewed for the third and final time this regular season tonight when the Gators (25-7) travel to Tallahassee to face the Seminoles (27-5). The game is being streamed live on ESPN3.com starting at 6 p.m.

In the previous two meetings, the Gators were ranked No. 1 in the country and won both games. The Seminoles moved to No. 1 on Monday in the Baseball America and USA Today/ESPN polls; the Gators dropped to No. 4 in the coaches’ poll and to No. 7 by Baseball America.

In a web chat on Monday, Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt discussed what he took out of Florida’s three-game series against LSU over the weekend. The Gators lost two of three and have now lost five of seven games since defeating FSU on March 27 in Jacksonville.

“I am starting to worry about Florida's pitching,’’ Fitt said. “Obviously, we have not seen the same Hudson Randall and Karsten Whitson that we saw a year ago, and eight weeks into the season, that is a real concern. Brian Johnson has been ordinary at best, by and large. They lean so heavily on Austin Maddox and Steven Rodriguez — are those guys going to burn out when it matters most?

“These are legitimate questions, and until they are answered, I can no longer cling to my conviction that Florida is the strong national title favorite. If I had to pick a team to win it all today, I would still go with the Gators — I believe that coaching staff will get it figured out. But I make that call with much more trepidation today than I did a couple of weeks ago.”

Based on comments in my email inbox, fans have taken notice of the Gators’ recent dip. There have been several asking “What’s wrong with the Gators baseball team?”

The baseball season has an ebb and flow like no other sport, so a slump here and there is unavoidable. That’s the nature of the game and every team from the 1927 Yankees to 2012 Gators can relate.

However, there are some specifics that have worked against the Gators of late. Here are a few worth pointing out -- and a concern meter for perspective:

UNSETTLED ROTATION

The starting rotation of Hudson Randall, Karsten Whitson and Brian Johnson was superb in 2011 and expected to be the team’s strength this season. Randall and Johnson have had their ups and downs and Whitson has barely pitched due to a tired arm.

Sophomore Jonathon Crawford has done a nice job picking up some of the slack, but Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan is still aiming for a weekend where he can send Randall, Johnson and Whitson to the mound and feel as confident as he did a season ago.

The Gators are 2-5 over their last seven games and the starting pitching hasn’t done much to help other than for Crawford’s six shutout innings against LSU on Friday. In 23 2/3 innings over that span, Florida’s starters have allowed 28 hits, 19 runs and posted a 6.46 ERA.

Concern meter: Medium high

POWER DIMS

The Gators are well on pace to surpass last season’s home run total with 42 round-trippers in 32 games. Florida hit 69 HRs in 72 games a year ago.

However, after hitting 37 homers in their first 24 games, the Gators have managed only five over the last eight games -- and three of those came in one game.

Concern meter: Low

DEFENSE, DEFENSE

The Gators opened the season with one of the country’s best defenses up the middle with Mike Zunino at catcher, Nolan Fontana at shortstop, Casey Turgeon at second base and senior Tyler Thompson in center field.

The loss of Thompson to a knee injury has proven costly as left fielder Daniel Pigott was forced to move to center and Vickash Ramjit taking over in left most of the time.

An injury to third baseman Josh Tobias didn’t help. Both Tobias and Thompson are gifted with the glove and their absence has been felt.

Concern meter: Medium

Austin Maddox

CLOSING TIME

The closer is one of the game’s most tenuous positions. One night you are the hero, the next the goat.

Gators closer Austin Maddox has been lights out and has provided very little reason for O’Sullivan to start searching for the Rolaids bottle when he’s on the mound.

Maddox is 8-for-8 in save situations and has 36 strikeouts and only seven walks in 31 1/3 innings. However, over his past five outings, Maddux has come back to Earth a little. He has allowed 10 hits and walked four in 9 2/3 innings, and he failed to close out Saturday’s 8-7 loss to LSU in a non-save situation.

Concern meter: Medium low

THE Z MAN

Zunino is once again having an excellent season behind the plate and with the bat, leading the Gators with a .351 average, nine home runs and 36 RBIs.

While an eight-game homerless drought and a .276 average (8-for-29) over the same span is no big deal for most players, for Zunino that’s considered a mini-slump. One likely not to last too long.

Concern meter: Low

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