GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gators made national headlines when sophomore right-hander Jonathon Crawford threw a no-hitter a week ago in their first game of the NCAA Tournament.
Crawford’s gem in a 4-0 win over Bethune-Cookman illustrated just how deep Florida’s pitching staff is. Crawford opened the season as a spot starter and moved into the rotation on a regular basis when No. 3 starter Karsten Whitson struggled with a tired arm and missed nearly two months.
The depth of Florida’s pitching staff is why the Gators were considered a favorite to win the College World Series to start the season. That hasn’t changed.
“We're very fortunate we had a lot of guys get better,’’ Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Friday. “I think a lot of the questions we had going into the season were answered at some point this season, but we do have pitching depth and they have been throwing well.”
Hudson Randall is scheduled to start Game 1 on Saturday in the NCAA Gainesville Super Regional against North Carolina State. Even if Randall runs into trouble, he is confident there are plenty of arms behind him to help pick up the slack.
“Our pitching's in good shape,” said Randall, who is 8-2 with a 2.83 ERA in 14 starts. “Our bullpen’s always been good for us. We're not worried about the pitching side of things this weekend."
While Randall will start Saturday, O’Sullivan has not announced his Game 2 starter or if necessary, a starter for Game 3 on Monday.
TUCKER’S FINAL HOME SERIES: No player in Florida’s lineup has been as good in the postseason as Gators senior outfielder Preston Tucker over the past four seasons.
Tucker delivered one of the biggest hits in school history in Game 3 of last year’s Super Regional with a three-run homer against Mississippi State that sent the Gators on their way to Omaha.
In 26 career games in the NCAA Tournament, Tucker is batting .371. He owns school records for most postseason hits (40), home runs (10), at-bats (107), doubles (10) and RBI (40).
Tucker picked up where he left off in the Gainesville Regional last weekend, going 5-for-13 (.385) with a double, homer, five RBI and four runs scored. He went back to wearing batting gloves, something he had not done since his sophomore season.
While Tucker is swinging for his college career to last a couple of more weeks, his home career is down to its final three games this weekend at McKethan Stadium – two if either team sweeps.
“I definitely have thought about that,’’ Tucker said. “I’m going to enjoy it. Hopefully I play as well as I think I can and hopefully it won’t be the last weekend I play in college ball.”
Asked what his legacy might be in the eyes of Gator fans, Tucker responded: “Hopefully as winner of a College World Series.”
FACING ACES: N.C. State freshman left-hander Carlos Rodon throws in the high 90s and has command of four pitches he regularly uses to blow away hitters.
If Rodon had been draft-eligible, some projected him as the No. 1 overall pick in this week’s draft. Instead, Rodon is just starting his college career -- and what a start it has been.
Rodon is scheduled to start Game 2 on Sunday and will take a 9-0 record, 1.61 ERA, and 132 strikeouts in 111 2/3 innings to the mound against the Gators. Some teams might wilt at the prospect of facing a pitcher of Rodon’s caliber in the postseason.
The Gators don’t appear to be one of those teams considering their past success. They have done quite well against some of the top pitchers in the country this season, including three – LSU’s Kevin Gausman, Georgia’s Alex Wood and Mississippi State’s Chris Stratton – taken in the first two rounds of this week’s MLB draft.
Florida beat Gausman and Stratton and won a game Wood started in extra innings. In the three games, the trio of top prospects combined to go 0-2 with a 3.79 ERA (21 1/3 IP, 23 H, 12 R, 9 ER, 10 BB, 21 SO) against the Gators.
Still, Florida knows it must be sharp at the plate against the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Rodon.
“He’s a great presence on the mound," said Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who along with Rodon and Stanford’s Mark Appel is one of three finalists for the Golden Spikes Award. “Obviously his numbers are great. He’s got a great arm so we’re going to have to come out here and battle and have good at-bats and see what happens.”
KEEP HIM CLOSE: N.C. State freshman 3B Trea Turner is a threat to steal every time he gets on base. And that’s a lot.
Turner is second on the team with a .344 batting average and second with a .441 on-base percentage. He is far and away the Wolfpack’s most dangerous threat on the bases, leading the nation with 56 stolen bases in 60 tries.
Randall will be keeping a close eye on Turner should he reach in Game 1 on Saturday.
“We definitely talked about it,’’ Randall said Friday. “But you know he can’t steal bases if he doesn’t get on, first of all. Second of all, we have a great catcher behind the plate. I trust him. I just have to give him a good shot to throw him out.”
Meanwhile, Zunino has thrown out 20 of 65 (30.7 percent) runners attempting to steal and has an above-average arm. He has studied film of Turner to prepare for this weekend’s series.
“I take it as a challenge,’’ Zunino said. “So does our pitching staff. Our biggest thing, if he gets on, is try to hold him there. We really work hard on holding our runners and changing our looks up.”
FLORIDA HOMECOMING: The Wolfpack have several players who call Florida home, including Turner and slugger Ryan Mathews, an Orlando native who once signed with the Gators before O’Sullivan took over the program in 2008.
The eight Wolfpack players from Florida are OF Bryan Adametz (Wellington), INF Matt Bergquist (Orange Park), C/INF Danny Canela (Miami), INF Chris Diaz (Miami), RHP Danny Healey (Cooper City), RHP Anthony Tzamtzis (Miami), Turner and Mathews.
Mathews, who played at Orlando’s Boone High, considers Gators pitcher Greg Larson one of his best friends. He played at Western Carolina and Gainesville’s Santa Fe College prior to N.C. State.
“I don’t have any hard feelings for the players or coaching staff [at Florida],” Mathews told the Raleigh News & Observer. “It ended up working out. It just didn’t work out there. I found my home and my place at N.C. State.”
NEW-LOOK RANDALL: The red-headed Randall has sported a mustache since midseason. He said it took him about two months to fully grow.
So where was it Friday?
“I just cleaned up,’’ Randall said. “I came home two nights ago and shaved it off. I didn’t want it any more.”
DRAFT DEALINGS: O’Sullivan could only watch Monday through Wednesday as nine Gators were selected in the MLB First-Year Player Draft, including six juniors.
The publicity of producing so many players in the draft – 11 of the draft’s first 118 picks had connections to the Gators – can only help recruiting in the future.
While the ramifications on next year’s team remain uncertain, O’Sullivan won’t be changing the way he goes about building a roster.
“The draft is something that is going to be there every year,’’ O’Sullivan said Friday. “If you have good players in your program, they are going to get drafted. If you recruit good players, there’s a chance you could lose them. It’s as simple as that.
“I’m happy for them. We’re never going to change our recruiting philosophy. We’re going to recruit the best players and we feel like we’re at a place we can do that. Even though it’s painful at times to lose players, I think in the long run it can only help your program.”