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Thursday June 23, 2011Locked In: Once An Unknown, Preston Tucker Continues To Carve Up Opposing Pitching

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

OMAHA, Neb. – The contrast in stature now seems unfathomable each time Gators slugger Preston Tucker steps into the batter’s box.

The Tucker who has ripped apart opposing pitchers in the NCAA Tournament once was so much of an unknown that college coaches hardly bothered tracking down his number despite an impressive prep career at Plant High in Tampa.

That all changed the summer before his senior season when Tucker stepped into the cage for batting practice at a USA Baseball event to determine invitations for the USA Junior National Team trials. Tucker was a last-minute invitee due to an injury to former American Heritage High standout Eric Hosmer, now a rookie first baseman with the Kansas City Royals.

Plant coach Dennis Braun remembers spending the day out and about, returning home to find his cell phone flooded with voice mails. He had no idea why he was suddenly so popular.

And then Braun started listening to the messages. The first one was from Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan, one of the few coaches who had recruited Tucker much at that point, first as an assistant and Clemson and later when he took over the Gators in June 2007.

“I had about 15 calls from college coaches,’’ Braun said. “They all wanted to know about Preston.’’

Mike Tucker, Preston’s father, had a similar experience that day.

“His host family was at the field and he called me to tell me about all these coaches coming up to him asking about Preston,’’ Mike said. “They thought he was his dad.’’

Preston’s left-handed swing was the culprit behind the surge in interest. During batting practice, the little-known Tucker launched pitch after pitch over the outfield wall the way he did on Monday against Vanderbilt’s Grayson Garvin – the SEC Pitcher of the Year – in Florida’s 3-1 win over the Commodores in the College World Series.

Suddenly, everyone seemed to want to know more about the kid with the big bat.

*****

They know who Tucker is now. He has been one of the most dangerous hitters in the nation the past three years, highlighted by his performance in this year’s postseason.

Tucker is 12-for-33 (.364) in eight tournament games with six doubles, five homers and 18 RBIs. He crushed a slider that Garvin left up Monday deep into the right-field seats in the fourth inning to account for all of Florida’s runs. He added his 23rd double – a single-season school record – in the sixth inning by flicking his wrists at a pitch down and away, drilling it into the gap in right-center field.

Fans have tossed beach balls onto the field often throughout the inaugural CWS here at TD Ameritrade Stadium. With the way Tucker is hitting, the baseball must seem like a beach ball.

“He’s the best bad-pitch hitter I’ve ever seen,’’ Braun said. “The kid can hit anything.’’

“He has a very flat swing,’’ Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “He has the ability to stay on lateral breaking balls because of his swing.’’

Garvin said Tucker’s “bat stays in the zone a long time,’’ optimizing his chances to make solid contact.

O’Sullivan saw enough to immediately insert Tucker into the lineup as a true freshman in 2009, and all Tucker did was drive in a school-record 85 RBIs and become the first UF player to ever win the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Freshman Hitter of the Year award.

O’Sullivan is grateful Tucker, a junior who plays right field and first base, is doing some of his best work in the batter’s box as the Gators try to win their first national title. Florida is 2-0 at the CWS with wins over Texas and Vanderbilt. The Gators face the Commodores again on Friday. If they win, they will advance to the CWS championship series.

“If you're going to make a run in the postseason, you need a guy or two to get hot like this,’’ O’Sullivan said. “You need your special players to play special. He's been able to do that for us.’’

Tucker has been asked repeatedly of late what has sparked his recent hot streak. He can’t pinpoint a single reason; it’s more complicated than that. Instead, Tucker offered some of the same traits all great hitters talk about such as swing control, hand and foot positioning, and getting good pitches to hit with men often on base when he steps to the plate.

“When you are seeing the ball well, you are more comfortable at the plate and not as picky,’’ Tucker said. “You don’t have to get that perfect pitch you can drive out. Whether it’s a fastball in or out, or a breaking ball away, you feel like you can put a good swing on it and drive it.

“I’m not really trying to look to hit home runs; I’m looking to hit balls hard.’’

*****

Braun first saw Tucker’s raw ability as a hitter several years ago. Tucker was 10 and just starting out in the Tampa Bay Little League when they first met.

Braun, who took over Plant’s program Tucker’s freshman season, worked on the side as a hitting instructor at the time and quickly developed a simple approach in working with his newest student.

“I don’t want to mess this kid up. He can hit,’’ Braun told Mike.

A former quarterback at Bowling Green who relocated to Tampa from Ohio, Mike Tucker simply let the oldest of the family’s three kids take his cuts and see what happened.

In his first game, Preston hit two home runs.

“That was pretty cool,’’ Preston said.

“He didn’t even like the sport at first,’’ added Mike. “It was too slow of a game for him. He was a very competitive soccer player. He played a year and then took a year off.’’

Soon after, Preston picked up his bat and glove again and hasn’t quit playing since. He was drafted in the 16th round of the MLB first-year player draft earlier this month and has dreamed of playing professionally since blossoming his sophomore season at Plant.

According to scouting reports, Tucker would have gone higher in the draft if he was a taller – he is listed at 6-0, 215 pounds. He also reportedly had an asking price that may have scared off some teams.

Braun received several calls from scouts on draft day and told them all the same thing if they passed on Tucker.

“If you want to keep waiting, fine, but one day you are going to wish you had him,’’ Braun said. “I say it every time I talk about him: he is an RBI machine. Why they keep skipping over him I don’t get it. He is eventually going to be in pro ball and they are going to find out. I’ve seen him do things the opposite way that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen another kid do.’’

Braun was at home in Tampa with a big grin on his face when Tucker smacked a three-run homer to lift the Gators to a win in Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional. The victory earned Florida the first back-to-back trips to the CWS in school history.

The day before Tucker hit the ball hard several times in a 4-3 loss to the Bulldogs, pulling most pitches foul down the right-field line. Braun called him up afterward to remind him of all those home runs at Plant he used to hit to the opposite field.

Tucker’s go-ahead homer in the seventh inning of Game 3 flew out a shade to left-center.

“That was a pretty special moment watching that on TV,’’ Braun said. “I got goose bumps.’’

*****

Mike Tucker felt the same way on Monday as Preston rounded the bases at TD Ameritrade Park. His wife, Lisa Fernandez, took a picture as the scoreboard flashed “It’s Gone.’’

“He wanted to hit one out here,’’ Mike said.

Mike, Lisa – her grandmother’s cousin is a cousin of the late Al Lopez, a Tampa legend and former Indians manager – and the other Tucker kids, Hannah and 14-year-old Kyle, have been in Omaha this week to watch Preston and the Gators.

They got to have dinner with the hitting star of the family on Tuesday night and hope there is more pop left in Preston’s bat to help the Gators.

“We’re always anxious to see him and the team do well,’’ Mike said. “We go through the same angst as he does every time he comes to the plate. We’ve been around baseball so long we know that it’s a game of failure.’’

Failure is something Tucker hasn’t experienced much of late. Thanks to his strong performance in the postseason, Tucker is hitting .315 with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs as one of the most accomplished hitters in the CWS.

For his part, Tucker said he is going to continue taking a “line-drive approach’’ to the plate and see what happens.

After all, there’s certainly no reason to change now.

“It feels good,’’ he said. “I’m letting my hands work rather than trying to muscle balls out of the ballpark. Right now I’m barreling balls up and good things are happening.’’

 

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