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Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan hopes to have reason to clap this weekend as Florida closes the regular season at Georgia.

Tuesday May 14, 2013Gators Remain In Strong Contention For NCAA Tournament Despite Roller-Coaster Season

Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan hopes to have reason to clap this weekend as Florida closes the regular season at Georgia.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They knew it was going to be different and it has been.

The Florida baseball team remains in contention for a NCAA Tournament berth, but the Gators took a road less traveled than in recent years.

You didn't need glasses or binoculars to see this coming. Not if you watched the Gators make three consecutive trips to the College World Series.

Those teams were stacked with potential major leaguers.

Eighteen players on those three squads are now playing professionally. Two -- pitchers Nick Maronde and Paco Rodriguez -- are already in the majors. Three others -- outfielder Matt den Dekker, pitcher Kevin Chapman and catcher Mike Zunino -- are knocking at the door in Triple-A.

They never won a national title but they helped remake Florida's program from a good one into one that expects to be in the national title conversation more often than not.

Still, there seemed no way around a retooling year in 2013, especially after pitcher Karsten Whitson was lost for the season due to a shoulder issue and pitcher Keenan Kish was shelved after only three appearances with an arm injury.

Whitson and Kish are both among Baseball America's top 100 college prospects. So is right-hander Jonathon Crawford.

With Whitson and Kish out, the Gators turned to Crawford more than ever as the team's undisputed ace. Instead of a steady Friday night stopper, Crawford hopped on a roller coaster he has been unable to exit from. He is 3-6 heading into Thursday night's opener at Georgia in the final regular-season series of the season.

Still, the Gators found a way to win more than they lost, even after an 11-16 start threatened to make their postseason plans extinct before the SEC schedule was half over.

Florida travels to Georgia with a 28-25 record, 13-14 in the SEC. The Gators have secured a spot in the SEC Tournament next week but can improve their seeding and erase any doubts about an NCAA Tournament bid with a good showing against the Bulldogs, who are an SEC-worst 18-31, 5-19.

"We battled and we put ourselves in position to control our own destiny and that’s pretty much what each year your goal is,'' Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said Tuesday. "We still have a lot to play for."

The Gators hit the road after a less-than-memorable three-game series against Auburn to close out the season's slate at McKethan Stadium. Florida lost two of three to the Tigers and needed a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth on Saturday to avoid getting swept.

It wasn't what they had in mind, making this weekend's series against Georgia even more critical.

"To put us in good position, we’ve got to win one,'' freshman shortstop/outfielder Richie Martin said. "We obviously want to win the series. We are going to try and get two, even three. We’re going to get as many as we can.”

The Gators met before Monday's practice to hit the refresh button and talk about where they are. O'Sullivan reminded them to stay loose and have fun.

Reliever Ryan Harris grasped the message.

"I don’t really see it as pressure. We try to win every game,'' he said. "We’ve got to get the job done. That’s what it is. The way our team comes at it, it’s like that every day.”

Added O'Sullivan: "The journey is a long one. There is nothing to be concerned about. The bottom line is we have to go out and play a little bit better than we have. If we play well, the result will be fine.”

For starters, the Gators will need to hit better. They managed only 10 runs and hit .222 (22-for-99) in the three games against Auburn.

The pitching has improved of late and lefty Bobby Poyner and closer Johnny Magliozzi have looked good in the starting rotation. If Crawford can rediscover his magic from last postseason when he tossed a no-hitter in the NCAA Tournament, O'Sullivan would sleep a lot better.

A fourth consecutive trip to the College World Series seems a long shot in mid-May, but a return trip to the NCAA Tournament does not.

The Gators hope to erase any doubts about that by the end of the weekend.

"We made a good run after starting off really bad,'' reliever Ryan Harris said. "We’re happy to be where we’re at. We’re just trying to fight and claw and get our way into the postseason.

"It just shows we’re resilient. We bounce back from adversity. It shows this team has got some character. We were able to come back from all that we still got a shot."

They knew it was going to be different and it has been.

But as the regular season comes to an end, the Gators aren't ready to say, "wait 'til next year."

They have their eyes on this year.

"Everything is still in front of us,'' O'Sullivan said.


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