GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A few seconds after it was announced that Florida was the No. 1 overall seed, ESPN college baseball analyst Ben McDonald said what the Gators have heard a lot lately.
“I still don’t think Florida has played its best baseball,’’ McDonald said Monday on the NCAA Selection Show.
The Gators open the tournament as the favorite to win it all in the eyes of many. They have been all season due to a deep pitching staff, veterans like Preston Tucker, Mike Zunino and Nolan Fontana anchoring the lineup, and recent history.
The Gators have made it to the College World Series for two straight seasons and finished national runner-up to South Carolina a year ago.
Florida (42-18) begins its quest for a third consecutive trip to Omaha – and possible first national championship – on Friday night against Bethune-Cookman in the Gainesville Regional.
Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan and his players don’t wear headphones 24/7, so they hear the talk about how they still haven’t reached their full potential.
O’Sullivan hopes the best is yet to come. Still, he wants to make sure the Gators get the respect they deserve for being where they are.
“That’s been the internal struggle that we’ve had all year long,’’ O’Sullivan said Thursday. “We kept hearing as a team that we haven’t played our best baseball and in some situations that may have been true, but I think this team deserves a lot of credit for what it’s been able to do throughout the year with a very difficult schedule, playing in the SEC, and then to get rewarded at the end of the year with the No. 1 seed.
“I think that speaks volumes about this team. I hope we do play our best baseball at the end. Hopefully we’re ready to do that.”
BETHUNE-COOKMAN HAS GATORS’ ATTENTION
Florida has faced the Wildcats twice this season, winning both times at home. The Gators have also faced the Wildcats in the postseason in recent years, knocking them out of the tournament in 2002, ’03, ’09 and ’10.
In the 2009 Gainesville Regional the Wildcats took a 7-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning until Tucker started a three-run rally with a leadoff single to spark the Gators to an 8-7 victory.
While Florida and Georgia Tech are the favorites in the Gainesville Regional, O’Sullivan isn’t taking his eyes off Bethune-Cookman and their ace, Rayan Gonzalez, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year.
“His numbers are great,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He’s a guy they lean on. He’s competitive. It’s going to be a challenge. Every time you see Bethune as that fourth seed you cringe a little because they are capable.”
Hernandez is 9-1 with a 1.96 ERA. He hasn’t allowed a home run all season, a span of 87 1/3 innings. The Gators lead the nation with 67 home runs, so the matchup offers an intriguing contrast.
CRAWFORD GETS GAME 1 START
O’Sullivan announced Thursday that sophomore right-hander Jonathon Crawford (5-2, 3.34 ERA, 62 IP) will start against B-CU. It will be the first career postseason appearance for Crawford, who established himself in the starting rotation during fellow sophomore Karsten Whitson’s two-month absence due to a tired arm.
Whitson (3-0, 3.41 ERA) has only pitched 31 2/3 innings this season, allowing 37 hits and as many walks (16) as strikeouts. A former No. 1 draft pick, Whitson made four starts in the postseason a year ago, going 1-1 with a 1.89 ERA.
“We’ve got a lot of good pitchers on this team and Karsten is an unbelievable talent,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We’re not going to go as far as we want to go unless Karsten is involved. We’re very fortunate to have him here. His best days are ahead of him. I’ve got 100 percent confidence in him.”
HOME SWEET HOME
The Gators last played at home on May 13 when they beat Mississippi State 2-1. The next day they boarded bus for Alabama, where they spent more than two weeks.
First, they played a road game at Samford in Birmingham. Next was a three-game series at Auburn. Finally, the Gators spent more than a week in Hoover for the SEC Baseball Tournament.
Needless to say, they are glad to be back at McKethan Stadium, where they were 26-8 this season.
“It’s definitely a big advantage to be playing at home right now,’’ junior pitcher Hudson Randall said. “It’s nice to be back in your own bed and in your own house.”
PAY IT FORWARD
Freshman second baseman Casey Turgeon missed the fall season due to a scooter accident. Once he returned to the diamond, junior shortstop Nolan Fontana quickly helped Turgeon adjust.
A “throwback” according to O’Sullivan for his old-school approach to the game, Turgeon started 58 games and hit .271 with three home runs and 24 RBIs. Turgeon played a good second base, too, making only seven errors and showing excellent range and instincts in the field.
He compliments Fontana, one of the college game’s best defensive shortstops, for making the transition from Palm Harbor High in Pinellas County to UF easier than it could have been.
“I thought I was going to be way behind,’’ Turgeon said. “Nolan took me under his wing and I got a lot of extra work. He knew that I played infield and I guess he liked me.”
For the record, yes, Fontana does like his younger teammate. He also respects him for the way he plays the game.
“Josh Adams did the same thing for me when I got here,’’ Fontana said. “I saw a lot of myself in Casey when I got here and that’s a big part of making a connection. He’s a hard-nosed guy that loves playing the game of baseball. He just grinds it out. He knows baseball is a game of failure.”
Tucker is the most experienced player in the postseason for the Gators. In 23 career postseason games, Tucker is hitting .361 with nine homers and 35 RBIs.
As a freshman in 2009, he was named MVP of the Gainesville Regional by hitting .650 (13-for-20) with three homers and eight RBIs. In last season’s Super Regional win over Mississippi State, Tucker’s go-ahead three-run homer in Game 3 was the difference.
Tucker enters his final postseason with the Gators hitting .312 with 14 home runs and 44 RBIs. While his numbers are down from a year ago, O’Sullivan’s confidence in Tucker is not.
“He’s [hit well in the postseason] in the past and hopefully he’ll do that again this weekend,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We’re certainly going to need him.”
DODGING THE DRAFT
One of the most ill-timed events in sports each June is the MLB Amateur Draft – at least in the eyes of many college coaches. The draft is on Monday and in the midst of the college postseason.
For a team loaded with several potential high draft picks – Zunino is expected to go in the first five picks – there is usually as many questions about the draft as the college postseason this time of year.
The Gators take a low-key approach to the upcoming draft to make sure everyone remains focused on the ultimate goal of returning to Omaha.
“We don’t really try to think about it,” Randall said. “You’re going to go where you are going to go and what’s going to happen is what’s going to happen.”
O’Sullivan is confident the Gators are focused and mature enough to handle whatever the draft brings.
“I’m not even going to discuss the draft. It has nothing to do with this team this weekend,’’ he said. “I fully trust our players that they are fully focused on the task at hand and that’s worrying about Bethune-Cookman on Friday night. I don’t see it as a problem at all.”
POTENTIAL TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE
Randall grew up near Atlanta and often attended Georgia Tech sporting events when he was growing up. His father, Michael, went to Georgia Tech.
If the Gators and Yellow Jackets meet up in the Gainesville Regional, it will be fun for Randall.
“My dad and I have talked about it already,’’ he said. “I grew up watching Georgia Tech baseball, football, basketball, so it would be kind of fun playing them in my college career. I haven’t done that.”
As for those Georgia Tech clothes he has back home: “They are all too small to wear now.”