GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. -- There are times when it appears Gators shortstop Nolan Fontana is about to field a bouncing ball and make a throw for a close play at first. Suddenly, the ball disappears.
Other times, the ball seems on its way down the third-base line for extra bases. Then it vanishes. The scenario often plays out two or three times a game.
The place those balls usually end up in is Florida freshman Josh Tobias' glove.
"He's like a trap over there,'' Gators right-hander Hudson Randall said.
A freshman from Greensboro, N.C., Tobias wasn't around a year ago when the Gators advanced here for the College World Series.
He was in Gainesville in his dorm room watching the games with other incoming freshmen.
Tobias has a much better view this year as the Gators' starting third baseman, a job he earned at the start of the season. A job he was unable to perform for several weeks in the middle of the season after breaking a bone in his wrist. But now a job Tobias is performing with Gold Glove skill at the most important time of the season.
"He continues to amaze me at third, the plays he is making and the balls he is getting too,'' Gators catcher Mike Zunino said. "And now his bat is coming around better than I have ever seen it."
As the Gators made their way back to Omaha by sweeping through the Gainesville Regional and Super Regional, Tobias played a more prominent role than anyone was accustomed to seeing.
He has been lockdown defensive player since the first day of the season, but in the postseason Tobias has contributed significantly at the plate, too.
In Sunday's 9-8 win over N.C. State to win the Gainesville Super Regional, Tobias twice contributed solid at-bats in the late innings, the final one an RBI single that scored what proved to be a much-needed insurance run.
Tobias' RBI single in the top of the 10th gave the Gators a 9-7 lead. The run proved critical when N.C. State rallied to score a run in the bottom of the inning and had the tying run at second base when reliever Keenan Kish struck out Chris Diaz looking to end the game.
Afterward, Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan acknowledged the Gators might not be back in Omaha if not for Tobias' contributions against the Wolfpack.
Tobias also made several plays defensively in the two wins over N.C. State that received loud ovations from the McKethan Stadium admirers.
"He had really, really good at-bats,'' O'Sullivan said. "With Josh it speaks volumes to how far he has come this year. If he didnít have that setback with his wrist, you probably would have seen this earlier instead of in the latter part of the season.Ē
In the Gators' opening game of the postseason, Tobias had a 14-pitch at-bat that typified his approach at the plate. At one during the at-bat he fouled off 11 consecutive pitches.
He eventually flew out to left field but received perhaps the loudest ovation for an out in his career.
"When I get behind in the count, I never give up at the plate,'' Tobias said. "I want to be the toughest out of the game and make sure the pitcher knows that."
Tobias called his journey from watching the CWS on TV last June to playing a key part this year as "mind blowing."
"It's fun. It's exciting,'' he said. "You are playing the best competition every day and you are going to be on the biggest stage of your life."
A 5-foot-9 switch-hitter, Tobias remains a low-key presence on a team loaded with high draft picks and potential future major leaguers. He has tried to fit in quietly and let his play at third do the talking.
His older teammates have noticed.
"I almost get mad at myself when I throw a ball because I know if I put the ball in play we've got a very good chance of making the play,'' junior pitcher Brian Johnson said.
Tobias' nifty glove work is certainly part natural gift. Still, he works tirelessly on his defense when working out by himself. When he is home he often takes sharp grounders from his father, Andrew, who met Tobias' mother when they were both UF students in the late 1970s.
As long as he has a glove, a ball and a wall Tobias can get better.
"I will throw balls off the wall farther than I can really reach to test my range,'' he said. "I actually practice on making tough plays. It took a little getting used to [playing] third base because I'm used to playing middle infield.
"But I mean a ground ball is a ground ball."
When hit his way, they usually end up with the same fate -- Tobias' glove.