GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida baseball team, coming off a trip to the College World Series, opens its season a month from today at home against USF.
Expectations are high, but so is the Gators’ talent level. Florida returns eight regulars from last year’s starting lineup and 11 pitchers. The Gators also added hard-throwing freshman Karsten Whitson, who surprised most in baseball circles by turning down a $2.1 million signing bonus from the Padres to play at Florida.
Florida is No. 2 in the country behind TCU in Collegiate Baseball’s Preseason rankings and is expected to be ranked in the top five in all the major preseason polls.
GatorZone.com caught up with Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan recently to discuss the upcoming season, high expectations and other topics. Here is our Q&A with O’Sullivan, entering his fourth season:
Q: How do you control the expectations in the clubhouse considering all the hype around this year’s team?
A: They are level-headed for the most part. I mean, it’s kind of a double-edged sword. You can go into the season with a really good club and be ranked high, or go into the season with a lot of questions and not be ranked so high. We kind of knew [what to expect] after last year ended and what we had coming in. We’ll tone it down as much as we can, but it’s Florida, we have a good club. I won’t dispute that. I think we have a hell of a club, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to win the last game of the year. We’ve still got a lot to prove.
Q: What do you take most from last season to build on this one?
A: We accomplished a lot last year. It’s very hard to win the SEC, it’s very hard to be one of the top eight national seeds. We beat a very good Miami team in the regional. We did a lot of really good things last year – and I don’t want to take away from that – but we did not play well out in Omaha. I’m kind of using that as motivation to fuel us to get started here.
Q: How competitive do you expect the SEC to be in 2011?
A: The SEC is going to be hard. There are other good teams. I think the East is really strong. I think Vanderbilt is going to be outstanding. I think South Carolina – they are the reigning national champs. I think Kentucky has a chance to be really good. They’ve got three good starters coming back. I think the SEC is going to be really tough. Do we have a good club? Yeah, but we’ve still got a lot of things that we need to work on, and it’s baseball – funny things happen.
Q: Is the performance in Omaha last season – the Gators lost both games in the College World Series – something you are constantly reminding your team about?
A: No, I don’t try to harp on things. We’ve mentioned it, but we don’t kill it every day and mention it every day. They are smart enough to realize we did not play well; there’ some guys that for whatever reason did not play as well as they had hoped to on a national stage like that. We’ve mentioned it, but we’re not going to harp on it. We’re going to try to stay focused on trying to get better.
Q: How is this year’s team different than the 2010 club?
A: Last year we were young, so you have to try and treat the players kind of with kid’s gloves because they were so young and so many freshmen. Now we’ve got a little bit of an older club with some experience, but now come the expectations. Every team is different. I think your theme kind of changes every year depending on what kind of club you have. That will be brought up all the time. We’ve got to take the field and in practice every day like we’ve still got something to prove. There is nothing that is going to be handed to us. There are going to be some ups and downs. If we start believing hype and if we start believing polls without even playing a game yet, then we’re going to learn our lesson the hard way.
Q: How beneficial was playing on such a big stage for all the young players last season?
A: You can teach base running, you can teach hitting, you can teach breaking balls. The one thing you can’t teach a young player is the experience factor. I would think that’s an invaluable experience. At least they can refer back to and it should help them through some tough times. It’s something that a coach can never give a player.
Q: What is your plan with the starting rotation early in the season?
A: We’ve got five or six guys that could potentially start. Tough thing is, we’ve got all three guys back [from last year’s rotation], and then we’ve included a few young pitchers who are very talented. I think the important thing going into it, you want to try and help your young pitchers get off to a positive start if possible, and put them in a situation where they are pitching in more relaxed situation, pitch them at home instead of the road early on.
Q: With the loss of closer Kevin Chapman (3-0, 11 saves, 1.65 ERA), what’s the plan there?
A: You’ve got plenty of guys, and we’ve tossed it around. We’ve got [Steven Rodriguez] we feel really good about. We feel really good about [Nick] Maronde and the improvements he has made. Then you’ve got Greg Larson and [Anthony] DeSclafani. You’ve got two righties and two lefties, and all of them with experience. This is the college game. This is not professional baseball where you play 162 games a year and you’ve got one guy that you’re paying $5 or $10 million a year to close out games. Who knows? I still think that job is up in the air. I have no issues [with multiple closers]. That’s probably a strength of this club, that we’ve got some versatility and we’ve got some options to where we don’t have to lean on one guy to get it done night in and night out.
Q: Is versatility going to be a key factor with the everyday lineup too?
A: I think you owe it to your team to try different things early in the year, without sacrificing wins of course. Everyone that has earned an opportunity to play, you’ve got to find your spots. There are certain guys who won’t come out of the lineup – it’s fairly obvious. But there are certain positions – third base with [Austin] Maddox and [Brian] Johnson at first, does that stick? – I don’t know. Does Maddox end up going to first and does [Zack] Powers play third? I don’t know. Does [Preston] Tucker come in and play first base? I don’t know yet. I have a blueprint in my mind what I think might end up happing, but Johnson is going to pitch, too. We do have some options. We could do the righty-lefty thing a little bit. Like I said, we’ve got some depth offensively and pitching-wise. A lot of guys have earned the opportunity to see what they can do when the season starts.
Q: Does most of your leadership come from the strong sophomore class?
A: In theory, you would love for your leaders to be seniors. But bottom line, you want to have a good club. In any sport – I don’t care what it is – you’re best players have to be your best leaders. It’s as simple as that. If those guys aren’t good leaders, then you are in trouble regardless of what years they are in. I’ve always believed that. There are certainly a couple of seniors on this team deserving to be leaders, but the guys on the field, they have to lead.