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UF baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan enters his seventh season with one of his youngest teams.

Thursday February 13, 2014Gators Hungry for More Success in 2014

UF baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan enters his seventh season with one of his youngest teams.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – As Gators baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan spoke to reporters on a sunny and cool Thursday afternoon, workers placed the final touches on McKethan Stadium in preparation for the 2014 season opener.

They swept the aisles, painted walls, equipped the dugout railings with new padding, and hung banners commemorating the 100th year of Florida baseball.

O’Sullivan begins the task of refurbishing the Gators on Friday night when Florida welcomes Maryland to town for the start of a three-game series.

“It’s too early to answer a bunch of those questions,’’ O’Sullivan said when asked about the midweek pitching rotation. “We’ll use the first three or four weeks and a lot of this stuff will get sorted out.”

That can be said of other positions, too.

Entering his seventh season, O’Sullivan led the Gators to three consecutive trips to the College World Series from 2010-12. The Gators qualified for the postseason a year ago, but back-to-back losses in the Bloomington Regional ended their season quietly.

The mission in 2014 is to make a strong comeback with a talented but largely unproven roster.

The Gators return 18 letterwinners from last season and signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country according to most of the national publications that cover the college game in depth, including Baseball America.

Indicative of some of the question marks around the Gators is this weekend’s starting rotation.

O’Sullivan named junior left-hander Bobby Poyner the opening-day starter, followed by freshman right-hander Brett Morales on Saturday and redshirt junior right-hander Karsten Whitson on Sunday.

“I think there are a lot of guys who could have arguably been put in that No. 1 role,” O’Sullivan said. “The rotation is extremely fluid early in the year. There are a lot of changes. We are going to try different things. Up to this point, Bobby has earned it.”

Poyner has primarily pitched out of the bullpen in his two seasons but has made nine career starts in 35 appearances. He finished 3-3 with a 3.41 ERA as a sophomore and then opened O’Sullivan’s eyes with a strong summer in the Cape Code League.

Pitching for the Orleans (Mass.) Firebirds, Poyner earned a spot on the Cape Code League All-Star team by posting a 1.71 ERA in 36 2/3 innings.

“He was their No. 1 and he’s come back and had a great fall and great preseason,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He’s throwing the ball really well.”

Morales will make his first career appearance on Saturday. The freshman from King High in Tampa was taken by Cincinnati in the 24th round of the MLB Draft last summer but opted to sign with the Gators. And then on Sunday Whitson is scheduled to make his long-awaited return to the mound.

The 2011 SEC Freshman Pitcher of the Year, Whitson has missed most of the last two seasons. He did not pitch at all last season following cleanup surgery on his right shoulder.

San Diego’s former first-round pick is finally healthy and optimistic about the upcoming season.

Karsten Whitson

“I am definitely looking forward to getting out there,’’ Whitson (photo, left) said. “I’ve been working really hard on the offseason with all of these guys and I think last year was a year that we really weren’t expecting to have, but it happened, and I think we have moved on from that and are looking to not let that happen again.”

O’Sullivan knows the boost Whitson can provide if he pitches the way he did as a freshman (8-1, 2.40 ERA in 19 starts).

“He needs to be good for us to be good,’’ O’Sullivan said.

The Gators’ lineup also remains a work in progress but with some solid pieces up the middle in junior catcher Taylor Gushue, shortstop Richie Martin and second baseman Casey Turgeon. Third baseman Josh Tobias also returns.

O’Sullivan said to expect several new faces on the field this weekend against the Terrapins, who finished 30-25 last season under first-year coach John Szefc.

With center fielder Harrison Bader suspended to start the season – Bader led the team with a .312 average and 15 stolen bases last season – freshmen Buddy Reed and Ryan Larson are expected to join right fielder Justin Shafer in the outfield.

Freshmen A.J. Puk and Peter Alonso, and junior-college transfers Braden Mattson and Jason Lombardozzi are other newcomers who could see action.

“You just throw them out there,’’ O’Sullivan said. “There is no sense of them staying next to me too long on the bench. We could have anywhere from two to four freshmen in the lineup. They are all going to see action.”

In voting by the SEC’s 14 head coaches this week, the No. 20-ranked Gators are predicted to finish third in the Eastern Division. They finished third a year ago, too, but with a 14-16 record.

The Gators envision more success and more wins in 2014.

“I put [last season] behind me the second after we lost; it was not good,’’ said Gushue, who finished last season without a hit in his final 24 at-bats. “As a baseball player, you don’t really want to dwell on the past too much -- you want to learn from it.

“I think that we’ve all done a really good job of not dwelling on that, but learning our lesson from it, and letting it be a little bit of a chip on our shoulder coming into this year and letting that manifest itself on how we work out in practice.”

 

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