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Gators sophomore Taylor Gushue has provided a strong presence in Florida's lineup in his second season.

Friday May 3, 2013Second Time Around, Gushue Rediscovers Stroke

Gators sophomore Taylor Gushue has provided a strong presence in Florida's lineup in his second season.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Taylor Gushue appeared different to Gregg Mucerino.

Mucerino, Gushue’s high school coach at Calvary Christian Academy in Boca Raton, attended a Florida baseball game late last season when he noticed his former slugger’s baggy uniform.

“He looked kind of skinny to me,’’ Mucerino said.

Mucerino figured Gushue’s first semester of college, the grind of classes, an extended baseball schedule and no more home-cooked meals were taking their toll.

In December 2011 Gushue was a student at Calvary Christian. In January 2012 he was a UF freshman after taking the rare step in college baseball of enrolling early. In February, on the first pitch he swung at in a Gators uniform, Gushue homered.

The switch-hitting Gushue was riding first class on the fast track.

However, by the time Mucerino stopped by McKethan Stadium to check out Gushue, the freshman catcher's batting average had dropped way more digits than any numbers on the scale.

Gushue finished his first season with a .206 average, five homers and 21 RBIs. Not bad for a guy who skipped his senior year of high school but not exactly what Gushue had in mind.

Gushue served primarily as former UF catcher Mike Zunino's backup and at first base, appearing in 52 games. He started off the way he finished at CCA, but once SEC pitchers introduced themselves, Gushue hit only .143 as the Gators made their third consecutive trip to the College World Series.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Gushue battled through an up-and-down season and tried his best to keep it all in perspective. He expected some struggles after leaving CCA as the school's career home run leader (30) and single-season record holder (11).

"It was definitely humbling,'' said Gushue, now Florida's starting catcher and barely 19 years old. "I knew I was going to get some playing time last year, not as much as I actually got. It’s been an experience. I’ve had to learn a lot about catching and the pacing of the game, especially when you are behind the plate.”

A year later Gushue is more confident and comfortable and it shows.

Following the Gators' 5-0 loss at LSU on Friday night, Gushue is now hitting .296 with a team-leading five home runs and 30 RBIs. Since moving into the third spot in the lineup on March 29, Gushue has hit safely in 17 of 21 games (28-for-86, .326 average) and flashed some of the raw power that left Mucerino, a former assistant at The Citadel and College of Charleston, in awe. He is also playing much better defensively after a rash of errors early in the season.

With his team playing in a tournament in Orlando over spring break, Mucerino brought the Eagles to Gainesville to watch the Gators play UCF earlier this season. Gushue looked like the same strapping presence at the plate and behind it in his catching gear.

In Mucerino's view, the same player who once hit a game-winning home run to center field that was still climbing as it cleared the trees behind the outfield wall.

"And we don't play in a small ballpark,'' he said.

The decision to skip his senior season of high school is one Gushue and his family made. Mucerino certainly missed him in the Eagles' lineup last season, but he understood their thinking.

Gushue had the class credits, had proven all he could in high school, and had an opportunity to go play at one of the country's top programs and behind Zunino, the nation's top catcher last season and the third overall pick in last June's MLB amateur draft.

Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan had several talks with Mucerino about whether Gushue was ready to make the jump. The coaches knew each from O'Sullivan's time as an assistant at Clemson and shared a mutual respect.

Mucerino shot straight with Florida's head coach.

"It is very unusual,’’ said Mucerino, whose first season as the Eagles coach was when Gushue was a freshman. "It takes a very special kid from a maturity standpoint on and off the field. He certainly was that and was up for the challenge.”

Few high school baseball players have made a jump such as Gushue. Most of the ones who have did so recently. Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, left Las Vegas High School two years early to enroll at College of Southern Nevada.

Harper is in a category all his own.

Still, others followed, including Vanderbilt catcher Chris Harvey, Texas infielder C.J. Hinojosa, former North Carolina infielder Levi Michael and former UCLA pitcher Trevor Bauer, who recently made his big-league debut with the Cleveland Indians.

There are growing pains to endure and Gushue had his.

But over the past few weeks he has shown why he felt ready. O'Sullivan, a former catcher, sees the difference every day.

"He is still a freshman age-wise,’’ O’Sullivan said. “It was a big decision for him to make. He played behind the best catcher in the country. Taylor and his family and I going into this whole process thought that last year was going to be a learning experience for him which would catapult him into being a better player this year.

"So far it’s worked out that way. He is certainly right where we would hope he would be. I do think, right now today that he is a better player for making that decision out of high school.”

For his part, Gushue has never second-guessed the decision. Instead, when he was slumping last season, he stayed focus on what he could do to get better.

He keeps a reminder on a desk next to his bed. It's a Wilson catcher's mitt that was a gift from Yankees manager Joe Girardi, a catcher during his playing career.

Girardi's kids attended CCA while Gushue was there and Girardi would stop by practice occasionally. Once he surprised Gushue with a gift: the catcher's mitt Gushue keeps close by.

He wrote "NBS" on the glove.

"Never be satisfied,'' Gushue said. "Always want more."

His former coach has little doubt Gushue's best days in a Gators uniform are still in the on-deck circle.

Gushue doesn't look skinny any longer. Neither does his batting average.

"Watching him play, he is really kind of zeroed in,’’ Mucerino said. “He is into every pitch and every at-bat. He’s got a lot more in him."

 

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