GatorZone.com Senior Writer
Considering the length of the baseball season – majors and college – it’s understandable the saying seems most at home in a dugout.
As a reader, you’ve probably read it countless times. As a writer, I know I used it at least once early in my career until a veteran scribe came over to me the next day. He quipped how many times I would hear that during the season and that I had used up my quota of getting it into the newspaper.
He was right. I could have used it every other day as it turned out.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
The cliché works both ways. If a team is going bad early in the season, a manager can use it to try and defuse the gloom and doom. If a team is hot as a forest fire, he can use it to calm down the masses already asking when World Series tickets go on sale.
In college baseball the sprint truly starts when the NCAA Tournament begins. The Gators learned Monday that they are at the lead of the pack as the No. 1 overall seed.
Florida (42-18), seeking a third consecutive trip to the College World Series, opens the tournament on Friday against Bethune-Cookman.
We’ll be writing a lot about baseball the next few days, sprinting on the keyboard to get you caught up with Florida heading into the postseason. First up, here are five reasons why many analysts are picking the Gators to finish the marathon of a season with a trip back to Omaha:
THEY KNOW WHAT IT TAKES
The core of the Gators’ roster was around a year ago when the Gators advanced to the CWS championship series against South Carolina. Preston Tucker, Daniel Pigott, Nolan Fontana, Brian Johnson and Mike Zunino all know what it’s like to step to the plate in clutch situations in the postseason. Pitchers Hudson Randall, Steve Rodriguez, Greg Larson and Austin Maddox are also experienced in pressure postseason situations. Role players like Cody Dent and Vickash Ramjit are seasoned as well.
While the Gators had their ups and downs in the regular season, this is a ballclub that won’t be overwhelmed by anything that comes up in the postseason. If they play like they are capable, they have ample talent to win the program’s first national title.
THEY ARE BATTLE-TESTED
While some fans seem to think the Gators should be 60-0 entering the postseason, even the ’84 Tigers and ’98 Yankees hit speed bumps along the way to winning the World Series. And remember the 2001 Mariners team that went 116-46? They didn’t even make the World Series.
No one is going to compare a college team to any of those clubs of course, but you get the idea – the baseball season is indeed more of jog across town than a 100-yard dash. The Gators started 23-2 and then went 19-16 the rest of the way.
There are some sensible reasons for that, starting with the fact the SEC was the nation’s toughest conference in 2012. Also, Florida played the nation’s toughest schedule based on RPI rankings. There were also key injuries and slumps that impact every team every season.
The good news is that the Gators are healthy heading into the Gainesville Regional and if you compare apples to apples, their roster is as good as anyone else’s in the 64-team field.
THE BACK OF THE BULLPEN
Runs are usually at a premium in the postseason, meaning there should be plenty of games that come down to the bullpen. That is one area that Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan appears to have an advantage like few in recent seasons.
Gators closer Austin Maddox went all season without blowing a save until Saturday’s loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament. Maddox was 12 of 13 in save situations and struck out 54 hitters in 51 1/3 innings. As good as Maddox was, setup man Steven Rodriguez was even better. Rodriguez appeared in a team-high 31 games and surrendered only 41 hits in 57 1/3 innings. The junior left-hander struck out 77 batters – or 12.1 per nine innings.
To get to Rodriguez and Maddox, O’Sullivan often calls on Greg Larson and Daniel Gibson. A right-hander, Larson went 5-0 with a 1.10 ERA in 28 games out of the bullpen (41 IP, 25 H, 9 BB, 27 SO). Meanwhile, the left-handed Gibson finished 1-1 with a 2.96 ERA and one save (24 1/3 IP, 24 H, 11 BB, 17 SO).
The Gators are 33-3 when leading after six innings, which is as good a testament to the bullpen’s effectiveness this season as anything else.
FOUR IS GREATER THAN THREE
If a college baseball team has two high-quality starting pitchers, that’s a good start. If a team has three, watch out. If it has four, well, that’s what a No. 1 overall seed in the tournament looks like.
O’Sullivan’s four are Randall, Johnson, Karsten Whitson and Jonathon Crawford. Randall came on strong at the end of the season to finish 7-2 with a 2.91 ERA. Johnson, the only left-hander in the group, also finished strong at 7-4, 3.67 ERA.
Crawford made 12 starts and finished 5-1 with a 2.70 ERA, a more-than-capable fill in for Whitson, who missed two months due to a tired arm. Whitson returned to make 10 starts (2-0, 3.60 ERA) but has rarely looked like the dominant pitcher he was as a freshman.
While Randall and Johnson are set at the top of the rotation, the biggest question mark for the Gators is whether Crawford or Whitson will come out of the bullpen. As former big-league skipper Sparky Anderson might say: “If that’s the biggest problem I’ve got, it’s time to go fishing.”
POWER AND DEFENSE
The Gators struggled to score runs for much of the second half of the season. However, they seemed to be heating up at the right time in closing the season by taking two of three games at Auburn and then continuing to hit well in the SEC Tournament, including 15 hits in Saturday’s loss to Vanderbilt.
The Gators led the nation with 67 home runs and finished with a .281 team average, good for fifth in the SEC. That adds up to 5.75 runs a game, which was third in the SEC behind LSU and Kentucky.
Zunino (team-high .323 average, 16 home runs, 55 RBIs) and Tucker (.312, 14, 44) are counted on for most of the pop, but Pigott (.320, 7, 35), Fontana (.290, 9, 28) and Johnson (.316, 5, 39) are all capable of coming through in the clutch.
Defensively, Fontana is the anchor at shortstop with his glove eating nearly every ball that comes its way. Zunino is strong behind the plate and second baseman Casey Turgeon has excellent range at second. While the loss of Tyler Thompson is center field earlier in the season hurt, Pigott has shown an ability to track down long fly balls in the gap.
Freshman third baseman Josh Tobias led the team with 10 errors but is quick to react and has one of the best arms on the team.