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.
Midseason slumps happen – every team has at least one – though the one Florida Gators baseball went through (losing five of seven games from March 30 – April 7) may have been especially painful for fans.
Florida has seen the light though. As much was obvious over the last two weekends as junior left-hander Brian Johnson helped power the Gators to a series win at Tennessee and senior center fielder Daniel Pigott picked up the offensive slack against Georgia. Florida won both series but did not necessarily do so in the convincing fashion that many fans are accustomed to seeing. This is what SEC baseball is all about.
The biggest issue the Gators have is their offense. It was a question mark to start the season and remains a concern going forward. Their pitching and defense remain outstanding, especially considering the injuries that sidelined sophomore right-hander Karsten Whitson and Friday night ace junior RHP Hudson Randall.
During one of my first columns here, I mentioned how Florida had nine players capable of hitting .300. At his point in the season only Pigott, Johnson, junior catcher Mike Zunino, junior shortstop Nolan Fontana and senior right fielder Preston Tucker (five players) have eclipsed that mark.
The Gators’ lineup has become top-heavy. After these first five hitters, Florida’s lineup is manageable for opposing pitchers. Freshman Taylor Gushue has cooled off from his hot start and Zunino is hitting sub-.250 in SEC play. Every team goes through midseason struggles but to see some of the veterans off of their game is a bit alarming.
Zunino is going to be a top 10 pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. He could struggle the rest of the year and still go very early, but his recent issues have people in MLB front offices talking. At the beginning of the year, he was crushing the ball almost every at bat and general managers and scouts overlooked his awkward swing and questionable mechanics at the plate. Now that he’s struggling, however, these same people are pointing to his mechanics as flawed and the reason he is struggling. Teams will be more inclined to tinker with his swing once he gets to the minors if he continues to press, which usually never a good thing. Zunino can flat out catch and throw; that fact will keep him in the top 10 regardless of how much he struggles offensively. The decision-makers have already seen his power potential.
Johnson’s huge offensive weekend in Knoxville, TN had fans asking me how many spots he moved up on my draft board. My answer? None. Johnson will be a designated hitter or even play first base after he leaves college. I share the opinion of a vast majority of scouts and general managers: He is going to be a starting pitcher. There will be plenty who speak up and call this designation a questionable one because it “wastes” his obviously capable bat. Johnson is not the first and certainly will not be the last two-way player to end up on the mound.
Atlanta ace Tim Hudson hit over .400 with 20 or so homers his senior year at Auburn. Johnson isn’t even close to those numbers and Hudson’s career has worked out pretty well. It’s a tough choice, but Johnson is just too good on the mound and has too much potential to not focus on pitching. His recent performance has only bolstered the general opinion that he can do both, such as playing in the American League so he can DH on his off days. There’s no one in the majors who is doing it right now and for a good reason: It’s extremely difficult. That’s just the way it is and Johnson knows his destiny is on the mound. As a potential/probable first-round pick, he’s fine with that. Trust me.
For those legitimately worried about the Gators’ recent struggles: (1) You’re not alone. (2) This is what happens. (3) They’re going to be fine. The difference between this Florida team and an average SEC team is that the Gators have managed to navigate through their very rough patch and post an 8-7 record since March 30 by winning four of their last five games.
Many teams go through a four-to-five-game losing streak or do something like win three of their last 10 games. Florida has managed to win their last two series while playing below their capabilities, which is a good sign.
People do not understand how tough SEC ball is on a game-by-game basis. A series win against any SEC team is a big deal, regardless of their rank. The Gators are learning how to win without their best pitchers, with their best hitters struggling and without the confidence and swagger they had just a few weeks ago.
When Florida hits their stride again, which will be soon (trust me), they will be much more dangerous than they were before. The Gators will know how to win the close games because they’ll have been there before and now possess the confidence of going through some struggles but still coming out on top.
So take a deep breath Florida fans. Hudson will be back soon enough. The replacement starting pitchers (off the normal rotation) is doing just fine while he and Whitson get back to form. Zunino and the rest of the guys will begin mashing the ball again. And the bullpen will remain lights out with junior closer Austin Maddox shutting the door in the ninth. The Gators will be chopming again soon.
In an unrelated note… I have been informed that Randall’s “injury” is simply a tired arm. If it were the postseason, he would be on the mound playing.