GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The sight of your No. 2 starter, the guy who opened the season as your No. 1 starter, knocked out cold on the diamond with the NCAA Tournament about to start might be enough to send some coaches into the fetal position.
Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan witnessed exactly that on Saturday when Brian Johnson dropped to the ground after getting hit in the back of the head by a throw from catcher Mike Zunino. The scary scene unfolded in the first inning of Florida’s game against Georgia at the SEC Tournament.
O’Sullivan quickly raced to the mound to check on Johnson, who was taken off the field on a stretcher and later diagnosed with a concussion. Once the emotions of the moment settled, O’Sullivan motioned to the bullpen for reliever Anthony DeSclafani to take over in an emergency outing.
DeSclafani came in and promptly pitched one of his best games of the season, limiting the Bulldogs to two runs over 7 2/3 innings in a 4-3 loss.
The Gators rebounded to win their next two games and capture their first SEC Tournament title in 20 years as freshman Karsten Whitson and five relievers combined to beat the Bulldogs in Saturday’s second game, and then starter Alex Panteliodis pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings in the title game against Vanderbilt.
The sequence of events illustrates as well as any why the Gators open the Gainesville Regional on Friday afternoon against Manhattan viewed as one of the teams in the mix to win the College World Series.
O’Sullivan never had time or the need to fret too much over the loss of Johnson, who is 8-3 with a 3.66 ERA. O’Sullivan is more concerned about Johnson’s health – he remains questionable to appear in this weekend’s regional – than that of his pitching staff’s.
Whitson (7-0, 2.53 ERA) will start Game 1 of the regional followed by Hudson Randall (9-3, 2.25) on Saturday. After that, O’Sullivan has a plethora of arms to choose from.
It’s a problem he welcomes with open arms.
“We’ve got a lot of depth,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got a lot of options. I think what we’re going to do is try to win Game 1 and do whatever we need to do pitching-wise [after that].’’
The Gators opened the season ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time in school history by Baseball America, and after knocking off Vanderbilt on Sunday for the SEC Tournament title, they returned to No. 1 entering the NCAA Tournament.
The ranking is attributed to Florida getting it done on the field, of course, but a collection of arms unlike any other in college baseball doesn’t hurt, either.
Besides the regular rotation of Randall, Johnson and Whitson, junior lefty Panteliodis, DeSclafani, Nick Maronde, Tommy Toledo and Steven Rodriguez all made starts for the Gators.
Toledo (4-3, 3.31 ERA) earned the start in Game 1 of the SEC Tournament, and while he wasn’t as sharp as usual (2.2 innings, two runs, two walks, six strikeouts), Maronde, Rodriguez, Greg Larson and Austin Maddox pitched in relief of an opening win against Mississippi State highlighted by a grand slam from Johnson, also the team’s primary designated hitter.
When Maddox (2-0, five saves, 0.74) isn’t closing, he is at first base watching Florida’s pitchers frustrate opposing teams.
“Every guy is good,’’ Maddox said. “I don’t think you’ll see another pitching staff in the country that’s as deep as ours and our bullpen. That’s really been our strength all year – pitching and defense.’’
In his analysis of the Gainesville Regional, Baseball America columnist Aaron Fitt used more colorful language than Maddox when summing up why Florida’s pitching staff is considered perhaps the best in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field.
“Florida stands out most for its absurd pitching depth,’’ Fitt wrote. “Middle relievers like Nick Maronde, Anthony DeSclafani and Steven Rodriguez all have plus stuff and would be staff aces for many – if not most – programs in college baseball.’’
Much like they opened the regular season, the Gators start the postseason surrounded by high expectations and talk about winning the program winning its first national championship.
“We knew coming in that we had the tools to be a contender and possibility a championship team,’’ outfielder Preston Tucker said. “Everyone has done their job so far.’’
Florida advanced to the College World Series for the first time in five years a season ago and thanks to its pitching depth, is viewed as a stronger contender by many this season.
“We have all the pieces to the puzzle,’’ said senior second baseman Josh Adams.
The biggest piece of that puzzle is considered a pitching staff that hurled a school-record 11 shutouts and has a 2.99 team ERA.
For those who haven’t seen much of the Gators, Adams said there is no secret to their success. It starts and ends on the mound.
“They have carried us all year,’’ Adams said. “Every time they go out and have a good outing, we almost expect it.’’
Some days it’s Randall keeping hitters guessing with an assortment of off-speed pitches and impeccable control – he has walked just eight batters in 96 innings. Other days it’s Whitson and DeSclafani and Maronde blowing away hitters with their 94-mph fastballs.
Panteliodis, who led the staff with 11 wins a year ago, is starting to return to form after offseason hip surgery, as is Toledo, who appears all the way back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him during the 2009 season.
When dissecting the Gators’ national title hopes, the analysis starts and ends on the mound.
With or without Johnson available in the postseason, the Gators sound confident that they can get the job done.
“They are excited and they are confident, and they should be,’’ O’Sullivan said. “To accomplish what they have accomplished during the regular season, I would be disappointed if they weren’t confident.’’