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.
Here on Wednesday the Florida Gators baseball team still sits atop the recent top 25 polls as the No. 1 team in the country but UF is lucky that ranking came out on Monday because it certainly does not reflect their recent performance.
Florida began their long eight-game road trip by travelling to Columbia, SC for a three-game series in which they managed to squeak out two wins. Then it was down to Jacksonville, FL for a victory over another top-five team in Florida State and things were looking up for UF with a 3-1 start to their trek.
That was until the Gators travelled to Oxford, MS for their second away series in as many weeks. After giving up a run in the final inning of Sunday’s rubber match, Florida had managed only one win against a top-20 opponent in Ole Miss. This disappointing weekend, as you now know, was followed by what can only be described as a lackluster effort against North Florida in Jacksonville on Tuesday.
While the wheels may appear to be falling off, the last few games are relatively typical of any baseball team on the back end of a long road trip. Even though you get to return to Gainesville, FL between games/series, you are going to class and catching up on work that you’ve missed while trying to find some time to relax at home. Sometimes it is tough to wrench up the energy and motivation for what many consider to be “meaningless” mid-week games. This is not a valid excuse, but it happens to every team – college or professional. The four losses may be ugly even if three came to ranked opponents, but it is easy to forget that the Gators beat the Gamecocks on the road twice and followed that up by taking their second game of the season from the Seminoles.
The Florida State game was great baseball from start-to-finish. There was solid pitching, timely hitting and great defense. Senior right-hander Greg Larson started for the Gators and used his heavy sinker to keep the FSU from lifting the ball into the outfield and into the huge gaps and alleys at the spacious minor league park in Jacksonville. He induced ground ball after ground ball and even flashed an occasional changeup, something he usually does not need to use in his reliever role. As a scout, it’s pretty clear Larson’s future is in the bullpen, but he added to his draft value by showing that he provide a few spot starts over the course of a season if one of the pitchers in the normal rotation needs to miss a start due to injury or illness.
Junior RHP Austin Maddox came in to close out the game in the ninth against Florida State and looked unhittable. He clocked in at 93-94 mph on his fastball (which can reach 95 mph) and showed off his sharp breaking ball in the contest. However, he has struggled since that game due to throwing too many fastballs and not mixing in enough off-speed pitches. It appears as if every first pitch he throws to a new batter is a fastball and such a tendency is easily recognizable by opposition hitters. Maddox has the stuff to be selected in the first two rounds of the draft but must prove two things before that can happen: He knows how and when to utilize his sharp curveball and can pitch to both sides of the plate on any given at bat.
Something interesting that happened toward the end of the road trip was head coach Kevin O’Sullivan changing the normal batting lineup. Usual leadoff man junior shortstop Nolan Fontana has been going through a tough stretch at the plate and was dropped to seventh. Replacing him was senior centerfielder Daniel Pigott followed by freshman second baseman Casey Turgeon. This started during the Ole Miss series and it seems to have worked to a degree. Pigott and Turgeon are a great combination at the top of the order; having a guy like Fontana (an on-base machine) towards the bottom of the order can really help out as well.
It has been great to see junior Vickash Ramjit get a chance to play every day by moving to the outfield. Though he plays average defense out there, it will get better over time and his solid bat more than makes up for it right now. He is one of my “sleeper” picks to get drafted out of Florida this year. Look for him to be taken in one of the later rounds and be given a chance to play every day in the minor leagues. I think he’s going to end up playing a key role in the Gators’ run to Omaha, NE because his bat will continue to develop as he receives more and more opportunities at the plate.
Ramjit is in the lineup due to the season-ending injury suffered by senior Tyler Thompson, a key asset to the team. His defensive prowess was a huge factor in the outfield and will be impossible to replace. Pigott has moved over to center as he has very good speed, but Thompson had a knack for anticipating where the ball was going to be hit. His ability to track down fly balls that many outfielders are unable to was reminiscent of Matt den Dekker. The slight positive is that his bat has not been tough to replace. While the coaches lose a lefty bat to use in the daily lineup, Ramjit has shown he can fill in for Thompson offensively and certainly boasts more power.
Florida’s long road trip is over but so is the team’s momentum that they carried into the eight-game stretch. The Gators ended the road trip 4-4, and the unstoppable train they seemed to be riding looks like it has derailed at least temporarily. Good teams battle through the tough stretches in their season and find ways to get back on track, and I fully expect this team to do that though it is much easier said than done. Look for the veterans to step up this weekend against LSU as UF will need to find their momentum again before going into game three against FSU next week.