GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – If Taylor Gushue adjusts as easily to the rest of college life the way he has on the baseball diamond, he’ll probably never make a B, end up a Rhodes Scholar and marry a supermodel by the time he leaves UF.
A few weeks ago Gushue was finishing his classes so he could graduate early from Calvary Christian Academy in Boca Raton. On Friday night Gushue was having an OMG moment as he rounded the bases at McKethan Stadium.
A freshman switch-hitting catcher, Gushue didn’t even realize Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan had him in the starting lineup at DH until he noticed his name on the flashing scoreboard during batting practice.
That left little time for Gushue to ponder the possibilities before he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second inning in his first career at-bat.
What happened next is the kind of thing that happens mostly in Hollywood.
One pitch and one swing was all Gushue needed to officially introduce himself to Florida fans.
Swinging at a fastball high and outside from Cal State Fullerton starter Dylan Floro, Gushue drove the ball into the night sky before it finally landed over the left-field wall.
“When I hit it, I was like, ‘I hit that kind of good.’ I put my head down and started running,’’ Gushue said. “I heard everybody scream and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just hit it out.’ It was awesome. The feeling was unbelievable. I can’t describe it.”
Gushue’s solo homer on the first pitch he saw didn’t really surprise those who have watched him at practice since Gushue joined the team last month.
Gushue hit a pair of home runs on Sunday in a scrimmage, one batting right-handed off teammate Brian Johnson and the other one batting left-handed against Keenan Kish.
If he had any doubts up to that point, that’s when O’Sullivan tossed them into the trash can. He knew he had to find Gushue a spot in the lineup in the No. 1-ranked Gators’ season-opening 7-3 win against the Titans on Friday.
“He came in here to play,’’ said O’Sullivan. “He should be a high school senior right now. It doesn’t take long to figure it out: he is very, very mature and can handle himself in probably situations that most kids can’t his age.”
Gushue, who turned 18 on Dec. 19, approached a group of about 20 media members following the game as if he had done it many times. And get this: Gushue even has some Tim Tebow-like qualities, flashing a wide smile and answering questions in a very unassuming and polite manner.
He is also from a religious family. His father, Fred, is a team chaplain for the St. Louis Cardinals. He chose to wear No. 17 for the Gators as a tribute to a favorite Bible scripture, 2 Timothy 1:7.
The scripture states: “Do not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord.”
He even sounded a little like Tebow, too, not so much in how he talked but in what he said.
“I can’t thank them enough for the encouragement they have given me,’’ Gushue said of his new teammates. “Hitting a home run is nice but winning the game is a lot better.”
Senior outfielder Preston Tucker also hit a home run Friday.
He was in the dugout when Gushue took his first swing and couldn’t wait to congratulate him after Gushue rounded the bases.
“It completely changed the mood in the dugout,’’ Tucker said. “We were down at that point when Taylor got that home run. He’s been swinging it ever since he got here.
“He was obviously as excited as he could be. He probably didn’t hear any of us.”
Gushue’s home run was his only hit Friday. He finished 1-for-4, striking out in the fifth inning, flying to center in the sixth and lining out to left in the Gators’ four-run seventh inning that broke the game open.
As a junior at Calvary Christian last spring Gushue was an all-state selection after hitting .390 with nine homers and 25 RBI. He finished his prep career with a .472 batting average and school-record 30 home runs.
He also has impressive tools behind the plate and is expected to give 2011 SEC Player of the Year Mike Zunino a break behind the plate from time to time. Gushue was in the lineup on Friday in place of junior Austin Maddox, who like Gushue did on Friday, homered in his first career at-bat as a freshman two years ago against USF.
Gushue became the first UF player to homer on the first pitch he saw as a collegian since Chris Freshcorn in 2008.
“He has handled it like a champ,’’ O’Sullivan said of Gushue’s transition from high school to college the past six weeks. “He’s earned [playing time]. Nothing has been given to him.”
There will be plenty more swings for Gushue before he’s done wearing a Gators uniform. But his first was one to savor.
“It’s been an adventure to say the least,’’ Gushue said. “But I think since I’ve been here I’ve gotten so much better. It’s been such a wild ride.”
OMG, yes it has, kid.