Teddy’s Catch: Florida is playing at another level

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 Florida baseball team is good. Check that, they’re really good. I know that is putting it in simple terms, but the Gators have not lost a game since the opening weekend of the year, running off a school-record 18-straight wins including plenty of tough victories in that stretch. How has Florida been so good for so long? The answer is indeed that simple: they’re really good.

The Gators starting pitching continues to be outstanding. In the game against Florida State last week, freshman right-hander Bobby Poyner looked extremely sharp. When I first walked into the stadium, he immediately reminded me of former Florida lefty Stephen Locke. He’s not a very big kid, but he was mixing in a lot of off-speed pitches (curveball and changeup especially) to get the job done. When he finally let a fastball go, the radar gun clocked him at 90 mph. He may not have pitched deep into the game, but Poyner gave UF fans a glimpse of a future Friday night starter and someone who should have a promising college career.

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

Junior left-hander Steven Rodriguez came in for three hitless innings of relief and showed why he’s on every team’s draft board. His 86-88 mph cutter is almost unhittable, especially to lefty batters. He knows when to back off his cutter and throw more of a slider at 82 mph and that subtle difference can really keep a hitter off-balance.

Junior RHP Hudson Randall continues to show his mastery of four-to-five pitches, and he can throw any pitch in any count. This ability to control his repertoire keeps hitters guessing and makes up for his inability to really blow hitters away with a high velocity fastball. This solid four-pitch mix keeps Randall in complete control of the game and is the main reason he is high on a lot of team’s draft boards.

The pitching star of last definitely junior LHP Brian Johnson, who went six innings and struck out nine batters while scattering two singles. He was in cruise control after the first inning. His low-90s fastball was blowing by a lot of Vanderbilt hitters, and he mixed in his curve throughout the game, hitting both sides of the plate. Johnson has a problem with his release point sometimes, putting his fingers too far to the side of the ball when he releases it. This causes the ball to “cut” and move from left to right, much like Rodriguez’s cutter. It’s hard to control that pitch when it’s not done on purpose, and it shows up most on his curve balls. They sometimes lack depth and bite and are easier to hit. This only occurred a handful of times on Saturday, and he was hitting his spots so well that he was able to get away with it. Lucky for him it is an easy fix. I’m sure O’Sullivan noticed it while watching game film the next day.

Complimenting the pitching is the fact that the Gators’ bats have definitely heated up since the beginning of the season. After putting up only 15 runs against a feisty Florida Gulf Coast team, Florida posted 23 big ones against Vandy. That is plenty of offensive support for the pitching staff. Junior catcher Mike Zunino continues his hot hitting, checking in with a .408 average, seven homers and a team-high 27 RBIs. Senior right fielder Preston Tucker’s power surge did not suffer a letdown in the offseason and he has already registered a team-high eight home runs along with 22 RBIs.

Freshman Taylor Gushue continues to hit well; his 41 total bases are third-most on the team. However, other teams seem to have figured him out a bit, and he has struggled at the plate recently even if he did belt a home run last Sunday. Teams are pounding him inside with fastballs, preventing him from getting his arms extended and getting a lot of power into his swing. When he makes an adjustment, the pitchers throw curveballs and sliders down and away, which are unhittable when you are expecting a fastball inside. Gushue must realize what pitchers are trying to do to him and recognize the pattern of pitches he is seeing otherwise he may continue to struggle the further we get into SEC play. As a scout, I think he can easily figure this out just by looking at game film; him having such a good swing to begin with certainly helps.

Not only is the Gators’ pitching and offense hot, Florida’s defense is unbelievable right now. The Gators have 11 error-free games this year and have only lost 1 of those contests. This is not a coincidence, trust me. Pitchers are more comfortable and pitch better knowing they have such a high quality defense behind them. They pitch more to contact, knowing their teammates are going to make plays behind them. So the two are intertwined and the Gators are locked in on both fronts.

Florida now has to deal with the loss of senior center fielder Tyler Thompson, who has a solid bat but whose defense in the outfield was a key for UF. Replacing him in that vein is going to be a very difficult task going forward.

The Gators have registered 11 come-from-behind victories this season. Coming from behind in a baseball game is all about confidence, and this team is showing plenty of that. When a team gets behind early, they have to trust each other to play their part and have confidence in their teammates. The hitters have confidence the pitchers will put up goose eggs on the scoreboard, and the pitchers have confidence the hitters will put crooked numbers up in their frames. Pitchers trust their fielders to complete plays, too. Florida’s depth in both their pitching and their lineup makes it easy for the individual team members to remain confident that the Gators can mount a comeback no matter what the situation.

Florida is set to begin a three-game series against South Carolina on Thursday. Playing in Columbia, SC is much different than it is to go on the road against most SEC schools. The fans are rowdy, obnoxious and loud but still plenty of fun to play in front of. USC beat UF for the national title last year and taking them on will undoubtedly put butterflies in the stomach of every player and coach on the team. Truth be told, there are few better atmospheres in which to play in a college baseball game.

After the three-game set against South Carolina, the road trip continues with five more contests away from home. Long road trips can be fun, but they are absolutely exhausting. Living out of a travel bag and constantly going from one plane to another or one bus to the next one is exhausting and can definitely take its toll. While in the middle of a road trip, players have to focus on one game at a time. If you think about how many road games are left or how long it’s going to take you to get back to Gainesville, you lose sight of the game at hand and can underperform. It is cliché to say, but “one game at a time” is a mental state players must have on the road. Road trips are great when you’re playing well, and the Gator boys are hot right now!

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