Teddy’s Catch: Florida living up to expectations

A five-year member of the Florida Gators baseball team playing under head coaches Pat McMahon and Kevin O’Sullivan, former catcher Teddy Foster put together a solid senior campaign in 2009 with seven homers, 25 RBIs and 11 walks while batting .321 and earning 29 starts (including 15 at catcher, 12 at designated hitter and two at first base). No longer with the team and now serving as an associate scout for the New York Mets, he has joined OGGOA as a baseball columnist and will provide his unique perspective on the team throughout the 2012 season.

The end of the Miami series is an appropriate time to take a step back and look at what the No. 1 Florida Gators baseball team has accomplished up to this point early in the season. The Gators have lived up to expectations thus far, passing every test and checking in with a 10-1 record, the sole blemish being a loss in a Sunday game after a series was already clinched to then-No. 16 Cal State Fullerton.

The Gators opened up against the season without the usual cupcake series people are used to seeing in many sports and still walked away by winning two of three games at home. Since their loss to the Titans that first Sunday, UF has reeled off eight-straight wins, including last weekend’s sweep at then-No. 8 Miami.

The reigning SEC Player of the Year, junior catcher Mike Zunino, has kept up his offensive dominance by batting .425 with three home runs and 10 RBIs. Florida has eight or nine players capable of hitting above .300, and this consistency throughout the lineup is important as it makes every inning a stressful one for opposing pitchers.

On the mound, junior closer Austin Maddox is making the most noise and looks to have turned into the dominant closer the Gators desperately need. He has already amassed 17 strikeouts in just 12.1 innings.

It should be a relief for fans to see the Florida bats heat up Friday and Saturday down in Miami as they struggled a bit opening weekend against Cal State Fullerton’s quality pitching. The usual suspects like Zunino, sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana, senior right fielder Preston Tucker, senior left fielder Daniel Pigott and junior first baseman Brian Johnson powered the Gators throughout the weekend but there was also a new face who stepped into the lineup and produced in a big way.

Read the rest of this edition of Teddy’s Catch…after the break!

Freshman designated hitter Taylor Gushue belted two homers during Saturday’s contest and looks like a middle-of-the-order power threat who will contribute for years to come. He has very good pitch recognition – meaning he can pick up very quickly whether the pitch is a fastball, slider or changeup – and can determine whether he wants to swing or not. This attribute should enable him to continue his early success in conference play and throughout the postseason as long as the bigger stages do not become too stressful for him. If he continues to show power, he must try to stay disciplined at the plate as pitchers will begin to throw around him in an attempt to get him to chase balls out of the strike zone. A good sign early on for the youngster is that he has more walks than strikeouts so far this season.

Fans should also begin feeling a bit more comfortable about the Gators’ bullpen, which head coach Kevin O’Sullivan hopes will be dominant as it has been in recent years. The Florida bullpen was 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA during the Miami series, combining to strike out 18 while allowing only one earned run on seven hits with three walks in 13.2 innings. That is downright dominating.

As solid as the bullpen was over the weekend, the Gators’ starters struggled against a solid Hurricanes’ lineup. Junior right-handed pitcher Hudson Randall surrendered four earned runs in 5.1 innings, and Johnson also got hit around during his Saturday start, giving up seven earned runs in only 4.1 innings. Hudson and Johnson elevated too many pitches in the strike zone and the Miami hitters were able to capitalize on the miscues because of the poor location.

Neither pitcher struggled throwing strikes because they only walked a batter apiece, but they struggled throwing quality strikes, which are pitches low in the strike zone and on the corners of the plate. This is something that happens to even the best pitchers from time-to-time and does not necessarily draw an alarm for Sullivan let alone teammates or scouts. Both players should bounce back quickly.

Junior RHP Greg Larson looked phenomenal in relief on Saturday, retiring all 14 batters he faced using his devastating sinker at 85-88 mph. Sunday saw sophomore RHP Jonathon Crawford getting the start for ailing classmate RHP Karsten Whitson (groin), and he responded by striking out eight UM batters due to his increased velocity from a year ago along with what looked to be a demoralizing slider.

Florida is still in the process of trying out different starting lineups, moving players around in the field and working in pitchers in different roles. This is typical of any Gators team as Coach O’Sullivan wants to see many of his star recruits and players early so he can have a lineup set for the rest of the year once SEC play rolls around. Fans should expect see a few different lineups this weekend against Florida Gulf Coast as it is the last series before SEC play opens next week against Vanderbilt.

Look for Florida to try to run a bit more this weekend, too. O’Sullivan may call hit-and-run plays, steals and maybe a few more bunts to get in some practice for Vanderbilt where runs will come at a premium. It will be interesting to see how Hudson and Johnson bounce back from poor starts against Miami, but in the long run these guys will be fine and very productive.

The 10-1 start is what everyone expected of the Gators this year. Having played at Florida with a No. 1 ranking, performing up to expectations is much more difficult than anyone can imagine. Every team is giving you their best shot and that means you cannot give anything less than 100 percent every game or you will lose a contest you’re not supposed to drop. The Gators are off to a hot start and seem to be getting better as the season progresses, but SEC play is right around the corner, so stay tuned.

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One Response to “Teddy’s Catch: Florida living up to expectations”

  1. SaraGator says:

    Excellent article, Teddy! I hope you write often.

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