GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The expectations swelled from his very first swing in a Gators uniform.
In his college debut on Feb. 19, 2010, Florida’s Austin Maddox stepped to the plate against USF ace Randy Fontanez. The first pitch was a ball. Maddox liked Fontanez’s second offering, taking a hearty cut.
The ball shot off Maddox’s bat and didn’t land until it had cleared the wall in right-center field for a two-run homer.
From that swing forward, Maddox’s freshman season pretty much went according to the script. A year after starring at Eagle’s View Academy in Jacksonville, Maddox led the Gators with 17 home runs and 72 RBIs, providing a huge dose of power to a lineup good enough to advance to the College World Series.
Maddox was named SEC Freshman of the Year and became the first UF freshman since Brad Wilkerson in 1996 to earn All-American honors.
The day Maddox went deep for the first time, Preston Tucker was on base and greeted him at home plate. The same scene played out on Wednesday night in Florida’s 4-1 win over North Florida.
Tucker stood on third base with one out in the sixth inning and the Gators holding a 2-1 lead. Maddox stepped to the plate against UNF reliever Joe Iorio looking to make contact and drive Tucker home. Behind in the count 2-1, Iorio tried to drop a curveball in for a strike.
The pitch hung over the plate and Maddox did what good hitters do to a fat curveball.
“I got it pretty good,’’ he said.
Tucker watched as the ball soared into the night sky, staying fair high above the left-field foul pole for a two-run homer.
“I knew that was gone as soon as he hit it,’’ Tucker said.
The home run was the 20th of Maddox’s career, so you don’t need a calculator to realize that there have been fewer trots around the bases for the sophomore first baseman than a year ago. Maddox has started all 49 games, hitting .291 and putting the ball in play most of the time.
However, Maddox’s home run Wednesday was his first in 21 games, a much-needed swing at a crucial point in the game. He now has three homers and 28 RBIs.
While power numbers have dropped considerably in college baseball due to standardized bat modifications, it’s safe to say that most expected the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Maddox to have more than three homers and six extra-base hits at this point in the season. A year ago, Maddox added 16 doubles to go along with his 17 homers.
Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Maddox’s power outage isn’t because of the way he’s performing at the plate.
“He’s been swinging the bat good,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I think he’s gotten a bad rap. I think he’s swung the bat pretty good this year. A lot of times he’s stung balls or hit them on the nose or hit them right at people. They position him in the outfield fairly well. It was good to see him hit a home run.’’
The Gators open a key SEC series at Vanderbilt on Friday and with so much at stake in the conference race, a power surge from Maddox couldn’t come at a better time as Florida enters the stretch run.
Maddox has maintained his composure as pitchers work him differently. He has found other ways to contribute besides hitting home runs, serving as a closer with a 2-0 record, one save and 0.95 ERA on the mound.
“I’ve been scuffling a little bit,’’ he said. “I’m just trying to stay level headed, just working hard and working through it. You can’t let it get to you. You know you are going to fail more times than you are going to succeed in this game. You go with that approach.’’
Maddox balked at the suggestion pitchers aren’t giving him anything to hit.
“I’m not going to make excuses for myself,’’ he said.
With Maddox’s power numbers down, Tucker and catcher Mike Zunino have picked up the slack, tied for the team lead with 10 homers each.
Maddox has hit fourth for most of his time at UF, but he has dropped to sixth in the lineup of late. If he does get hot, it can only make the Gators a more dangerous team in the postseason.
“Obviously it would help a lot,’’ Tucker said. “Mike and I have been doing a great job of getting on base, and so has Josh [Adams]. With Austin down in the lineup and guys getting on base for him, he can produce runs.
“If we need it in a clutch situation, Austin can come through for us.’’
O’Sullivan agrees, hoping for more swings like Wednesday’s from Maddox each time he writes his name onto the lineup card.
“He’s one of those guys I think when he comes to the plate, there’s always a threat he’s got a chance to do what he did [Wednesday],’’ O’Sullivan said. “He’s got a chance to hit one over the fence.’’