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.
Now the real fun begins.
Florida Gators baseball team enters the postseason as the number one overall seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament and will open up by once again hosting a regional this weekend. Ask any college baseball player and they will tell you the NCAA Tournament is the highlight of the season, but it takes something special to make a run to Omaha, NE – the site of the College World Series.
As a member of the Florida team that was the national runner-up in 2005, I can tell you that just getting there is the hardest part. Your team has to be at the top of their game every single time they step on the field because one loss can be tough to overcome in a Regional or Super Regional. Mistakes are more costly, errors seem to always lead to bad innings, and fundamentals like bunting and baserunning become extremely important because moving a runner up can lead to an extra run (and most postseason games are tight with that one run making the difference in the final score).
With this much added pressure, it’s important to stay as loose and relaxed as possible. The 2005 team liked to play practical jokes to lighten the mood. The old “Icy Hot in the jock strap” trick never got old. Whatever a team does, whether it be practical jokes, team outings to places like the zoo, card games or anything else for that matter, a team needs ways to lessen the stress of the marathon that is the NCAA Tournament.
Much like that team, this year’s Gators are loaded with pitching, power bats and experience. The 2005 team had four quality starters and a suffocating bullpen; it featured a lineup that had a mixture of speed and power, too. Florida has four legitimate starters, which is a huge advantage in the regional tournaments that can last up to four or five games if a team suffers an untimely loss. Also like the 2005 team, these Gators have a good mixture of guys that have a high on-base percentage like senior outfielder Daniel Pigott and junior shortstop Nolan Fontana as well as power hitters like junior catcher Mike Zunino and senior right fielder Preston Tucker. These similarities in the pitching staff and lineup give me and other scouts confidence Florida should be able to battle their way back to Omaha.
UF just wrapped up a good showing in the 2012 SEC Tournament, reaching the semifinals only to be eliminated by Vanderbilt. While many are disappointed, as a scout, the way the players performed in the tournament provided a glimpse of why Florida not only can but should make a run at the national title.
The first three games saw the Gators starting pitcher absolutely dominate the opposing team. Sophomore right-hander Jonathon Crawford, junior RHP Hudson Randall and junior lefty Brian Johnson each pitched exceptionally well; to have three hot pitchers going into the postseason is extremely valuable. Although sophomore Karsten Whitson struggled in the Gators’ fourth game, the bullpen, especially senior RHP Greg Larson, picked up the slack and shut down the opposing team until junior closer Austin Maddox unraveled in the ninth inning.
Florida’s pitching is right on track, but head coach Kevin O’Sullivan needs to tinker with Whitson and Maddox soon to get their confidence back. On the other hand, the offense was hot and cold for the most part, but the red-hot Johnson gives the Gators the scary middle of the lineup trio along with Tucker and Zunino. Look for Florida’s bats to heat up in the regional tournament as they match-up well against Bethune-Cookman and Georgia Tech.
Speaking of the pitching, Maddox’s struggles have left scouts a bit puzzled. He has dominated almost all season long but in one of the most critical situations of the season he completely lost his control as well as control of the game around him. Of his 30 pitches, only 15 were strikes. He consistently fell behind hitters and was forced to throw fastballs over the heart of the plate. Maddox throws hard, sitting between 90-94 mph, but in a league like the SEC, 94 mph looks like a beach ball if you know the pitcher has to throw that pitch. Maddox has to be able to not only throw his fastball for a first-pitch strike, but his slider as well. From a former catcher’s point of view, he seemed to be flying open a bit with his left arm moving towards first base during his delivery instead of downward towards the rubber. This subtle movement caused his body to open up and left his arm way behind his body, making it tough to locate any pitch in any count. A quick mechanical tweak should fix the problem, but the bigger issue is whether he’s lost confidence in himself.
Being a closer for any high-profile team is difficult, that’s why you don’t see guys like Mariano Rivera often. Hopefully he gets a good bullpen session in this week to work out the mechanical issues and gets some confidence back because he is a key player in the team’s chances at a national title. However, on top of that, Maddox gave up seven stolen bases in the ninth inning. This is a ludicrous number especially when you take in to account that the seven stolen bases actually occurred on only four total plays (a triple steal, a double steal and two single steals). On one play that he gave up a stolen base, Zunino gunned down the other runner attempting to steal second. Zunino is good, but he can’t throw out both runners. While there is a little solace that there weren’t seven separate steals, four steals in an inning is still absurd. Maddox has to be able to take a step back from the mound and understand the situation. He needs to pitch from the stretch with the bases loaded. He also needs to work on speeding up his stretch delivery to get down to a delivery that takes around 1.4-1.5 seconds to get to the ball to the plate. Let’s see how he responds the next time he pitches with men on base. If he does not correct this immediately (as in the next time he is in that situation) it could be a major problem for UF going forward.
The last thing O’Sullivan must figure out before the postseason begins is whether Crawford or Whitson will be his third starter. Just like the old sports saying suggests, my advice for him would be to “go with the hot hand.” Crawford was fantastic in his last start, striking out nine hitters as he pitched into the sixth inning; on the other hand, Whitson did not even last three innings and pitched poorly in his outing. Whitson has some experience in the postseason from last year, but Crawford is the better pitcher at this point in the season. Experience in invaluable but so is being locked in as a pitcher. That is why O’Sullivan decided Thursday to start Crawford in the opening game of the Gainesville Regional on Friday. He will still have Whitson as the fourth starter, which hopefully the Gators will not need until Omaha. At worst he will be available or long relief out of the bullpen should someone else get in trouble early.
Florida is playing well right now, and it is scary to think that they have still not gotten back to playing their best baseball since the beginning of the season. Hopefully they won’t need the walk-off, game-winning hit against Bethune-Cookman that I was fortunate enough to deliver a in the Regionals. While the College World Series is nice to think about, the college baseball postseason is all about taking one step at a time. That first step is taking down Bethune-Cookman and then winning the Gainesville Regional.