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Sunday June 3, 2012Zunino's Big Blast, Big Weekend, Precedes Big Draft Day

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nothing like a day to take few deep breaths, kick back and relax after winning a regional at home.

Mike Zunino earned the time off his coach will give the junior catcher and rest of the Gators after pummeling Georgia Tech 15-3 Sunday night to win the NCAA Gainesville Regional behind a third straight day of razor-sharp, across-the-board efficiency.

So Monday, Zunino plans to spend some time with his parents and fiance'; probably watch a little television, too.

Probably not "Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition," either.

Zunino, the first-team All-American and finalist for the Golden Spikes Award as college baseball's top player, is expected to be selected very quickly when the Major League Baseball Draft is called to order by Commissioner Bud Selig at 7 p.m. Monday.

Most mock drafts have the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder from Cape Coral, Fla., going somewhere in the top five, with a very likely destination the No. 3 overall pick by the Seattle Mariners (who choose after Houston and Minnesota, but before Baltimore and Kansas City).

"I'm not partial to any team," Zunino said Sunday night.

Actually, that's not true. Clearly, right now, Zunino is partial to the Gators.

The focus UF's best player -- he's hitting .316, with 18 home runs and 60 RBI -- demonstrated during the regional was remarkable, given the life-altering path that will open for him Monday night. Zunino went as far as to say the draft was an "afterthought" going into the weekend.

"We came out here with one goal, and that's to try to make it to the College World Series," he said. "I've got 34 other teammates that are trying to meet the same goal. I'm just trying to play for one cause. ... We just came in and tried to play good baseball. Once the game starts, once you prepare for it, you really don't think about it."

If that's difficult to believe, let's review the events of the last three days.

The box scores say Zunino went 2-for-11 over the three games, but his two hits were homers, including a second-inning, three-run rocket that gave the Gators a commanding 7-0 lead and commenced the route of the Yellow Jackets.

Oh, yeah. He also called and caught Jonathon Crawford's historic no-hitter Friday night.

It would appear Zunino's thoughts were about the present day. And his teammates.

"It's not easy," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "I can only imagine how difficult it is to kind of juggle draft expectations and keep focused on team goals. I couldn't be more proud of how they handled -- and not just Mike. They've been able to stay in the moment."

No fewer than six Gators figure to hear their names called during the two-day MLB allocation, with left-handed pitcher Steven Rodriguez, shortstop Nolan Fontana and Brian Johnson projected to go in the first 10 rounds; maybe even joined by outfielder Preston Tucker and right-handed pitchers Hudson Randall Austin Maddox.

Sounds fun, right?

But how fun would it have been had the Gators lost Sunday and had to take the field against Georgia Tech in the regional elimination final, which was scheduled for the same time as the draft?

Lucky for O'Sullivan and his troops, they don't have to worry about it; not after winning a trio of NCAA tournament games by a combined score of 25-5.

"[Monday] is a big day. Tuesday is a big day. I want these guys to enjoy the draft. It's part of our game," O'Sullivan said. "For me, I'm looking forward to watching our guys go off the board and put that behind them. They've worked awfully hard for this and I'm going to be excited for all of them. ... Just soak it in and enjoy it, then we'll refocus when the draft is done."

Because of that ability to focus, Zunino gets a chance to refocus on the bigger picture.

But first, a big moment in prime time Monday, then back to work another weekend.

Worth noting: Three years ago, following his senior year at Mariner High, Zunino was taken in the 30th round (the 873rd overall pick) by the Oakland A's. His stock, obviously, is way up.

Since joining the Gators, it's always been high.

"Mike's very, very mature. Off the field, you never have to worry about him. Never have to worry about the work ethic part of it," O'Sullivan said. "He has all the intangibles and he's had the career here at Florida that we've all been hoping for."


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