2013 Florida Gators baseball primer: Rebuilding

By Andrew Olson – OGGOA Contributor

Florida Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan has his work cut out for him in his sixth season in Gainesville, FL. Ranked No. 13, No. 17 and No. 24 in the various preseason top 25 polls, the Gators are looking up at anywhere from four to six Southeastern Conference foes listed ahead of them.

Right now, the core of the team that achieved three consecutive College World Series appearances is focused on MLB spring training instead of its spring semester at Florida. There are a few returning faces spread out across the diamond, but the Gators will have to find at least multiple new starting pitchers, a new closer and a new way to produce runs without relying so much on the long ball.

O’Sullivan has proven he knows how to identify some of the best young talent in the country. On a Florida team loaded with freshmen and sophomores, he has to develop that talent fast to fill the void left by the nine Gators selected in the 2012 MLB Draft.

Florida opens its 2013 campaign on Friday when it starts a three-game home series against Duke at McKethan Stadium.

Continue Reading » 2013 Florida Gators baseball primer: Rebuilding

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Top 12 for 2012: On the Field Moments of the Year

For as much as the Florida Gators were in the news off the field in 2012 (check out Sunday’s post), the Gator Nation was making plenty of headlines on it as well. From breathtaking moments, game-changing and game-winning plays to winning championships and setting world records, Florida accomplished some unique athletic feats in 2012. Below are OGGOA‘s Top 12 On the Field Moments of the Year.

12 » MISSED IT BY THAT MUCH
If there was a theme to Gators athletics in the spring it was Florida teams falling short of their goals. In addition to men’s indoor track & field, women’s outdoor track & field and men’s swimming & diving all just coming up just short of winning major titles, basketball, baseball, gymnastics, lacrosse and softball all gave valiant efforts but faced immense disappointment in the end. It all started with the Gators basketball team, which advanced to the Elite Eight for the second-straight year and once again choked away a late lead and failed to advance to the Final Four. Up 11 points with 8:14 left in the game, Florida was outscored 18-3 down the stretch by Louisville, which held on for the 72-68 victory. The Gators hit just 1-of-12 shots over the final 8:14 while also going 1-for-4 from the charity stripe down the stretch and 0-for-9 from downtown over the final 20 minutes. Gymnastics did just about everything it could during the 2012 NCAA Super Six in late April but came just short of earning the first national title in program history, falling 197.850-197.775 to Alabama and losing by 0.075 points. Next up was softball, which looked primed to return to the championship game of the 2012 Women’s College World Series for the third time in the last four years. Instead, Florida got upended 10-1 by eventual national champion Alabama in the finals of the 2012 SEC Tournament and was eliminated in the Gainesville Regional portion of the 2012 NCAA Tournament due in part to suspensions levied against three key players. It was the first time since 2006 that UF did not at least advance to the Super Regional. A controversial finish led to another tough loss for lacrosse (see No. 9), leaving one sport to provide the ultimate disappointment to Gators fans in 2012.

Perhaps most heartbreaking for Gators fans was seeing a baseball team that was the national title favorite from the very start of the season fall fast and finish the campaign without a single title. Cruising along in the SEC Tournament with a one-run lead and three outs to go in the championship game, Florida baseball collapsed against Vanderbilt, allowing its opponents to score five runs on five hits in the top of the ninth and hold on for the title. Junior closer Austin Maddox imploded after coming on to get the final three outs, giving up a lead-off double to right and eventually allowing Vandy to tie the game after a sacrifice bunt, hit batter and suicide squeeze. It only got worse from there. The Commodores accomplished a double steal, hit an infield single, loaded the bases (intentional walk, double steal, intentional walk) and then pulled off a triple steal to score their third run of the inning. A two-run single put the nail in the coffin as the Gators allowed more stolen bases in a single frame (seven) than had ever been given up in an entire SEC Tournament game in the history of the event. With horrible memories of the SEC Tournament behind them and the NCAA Tournament upcoming, Florida hoped to use the experience to improve as a team. The Gators did advance to the College World Series but were swept right out of it with consecutive losses. Florida fell 7-3 to South Carolina in its first game before allowing an unranked Kent State team to register a 5-4 upset victory in the second game. The Gators coughed up four unearned runs, committed two errors and failed to plate runs despite having numerous opportunities to hit with runners in scoring position. With so much talent on the roster and a track record of success – the team got to the championship series just one year earlier – Florida baseball legitimately blew a great national title chance.

[Read: The Silver Lining - "Failure" is not a dirty word]

11 » FLORIDA SWEEPS FSU IN FOOTBALL, BASKETBALL, BASEBALL

For the first time in school history, the Gators swept the Seminoles in football, basketball and baseball (5-0) in a calendar year. Florida State having a historically successful baseball team has stood in the way of Florida’s ability to accomplish this feat in the past, but Gators baseball completed its first regular-season sweep of the Seminoles since 1958 by earning a 9-2 victory in Gainesville, FL, 4-1 victory in Jacksonville, FL and a 6-3 win on the road in Tallahassee, FL. Florida football bounced back from consecutive losses to FSU with a 37-26 beat down in Tallahassee, and UF basketball matched the football team’s intensity with a 72-47 rout on the road.

Continue Reading » Top 12 for 2012: On the Field Moments of the Year

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Top 12 for 2012: Off the Field Stories of the Year

For as much as the Florida Gators accomplished on the field in 2012 (check out Monday’s post), the Gator Nation was making plenty of news off of it as well. From crazy occurrences and strange decisions to receiving major awards and being involved in the biggest sports stories of the last 12 months, Florida was spread all over the sports landscape in 2012. Below are OGGOA‘s Top 12 Off the Field Stories of the Year.

12 » A WACKY YEAR, INDEED
For every major story and exciting moment that occurred in 2012, there were plenty of instances in which Gators fans could not do anything but shake their heads, furrow their brows or shrug their shoulders at something they just saw or heard. Below is a list-within-a-list of the 10 most absurd moments of the year (sorted chronologically). Don’t worry, the rest of these stories are much shorter, so keep reading.

(1) Right in the middle of spring practice on Feb. 17, with coaches raving about team chemistry and noting massive improvement from the previous year, junior safety Matt Elam tweeted out a picture that looks like junior defensive end Dominique Easley riding his scooter inside the Florida football facility and around the Gator Head the players touch before heading out to the field each week. (2) One week after playing his last game as a member of the Gators basketball team, then-senior point guard Erving Walker found himself in trouble with the law when he was charged on March 30 with two misdemeanors for allegedly stealing a taco from a street vendor and evading police in Gainesville, FL. (3) Need a lesson on how to turn off an employer? Veteran wide receiver Jabar Gaffney went off on an epic Twitter rant on April 12, sending out derogatory statements about his wife and cousin (fellow former Gators star cornerback Lito Sheppard) only to claim three hours later that his account was hacked. (4) What better way to honor your favorite player than to get your hair cut and designed to look like him? That’s what San Antonio Spurs fan Patrick Gonzalez did for forward Matt Bonner. Gonzalez’s hair cut nearly got him suspended from school on May 16, but it also got Bonner’s attention and resulted in a pair of tickets and a meeting at a playoff game. (5) After some rather mundane barbs went back-and-forth between Florida head coach Will Muschamp and Texas A&M Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin over the summer, Mayor Nancy Berry of College Station, TX decided to post a comedic video of her poking good-natured fun at the former Texas defensive coordinator on June 1.

(6) Hours after taking home the first NCAA Outdoor Championship in program history on June 10, Gators track & field suffered a serious scare in the air when its plane suffered a cracked windshield at 37,000 feet and underwent a rough landing in Tuscaloosa, AL. The windshield shattered after the plane landed but everyone was OK. (7) How do you answer a quarterback controversy and answer questions about which signal caller is going to start the first game of the season? Start both of them! That’s what Muschamp did on Sept. 1 when sophomores Jacoby Brissett (quarterback) and Jeff Driskel (wide receiver) both came out with the starting offense on its first play from scrimmage against Bowling Green. (8) With Muschamp leading the team, he is sure to find his way on this list at least once per year. In a 13-day span, Muschamp made headlines by being himself. After Florida defeated LSU at home on Dec. 7, he decided to celebrate by crowd surfing over his own players in the locker room. Two weeks later, at halftime against South Carolina, Muschamp vented his frustration about the officiating to Brady Ackerman of the Gator Radio Network. He saw an official walking by as the teams headed to their respective locker rooms and made sure to make it known how upset he was at some of the calls in the first half. “Well, we just gotta continue to capitalize on what we’re doing and OVERCOME THE ADVERSITY ON THE FIELD!” (9) With ESPN’s College GameDay in Gainesville for the South Carolina game, having former Gators swimmer Ryan Lochte on set as the guest picker was an easy and obvious decision for the network. Never did ESPN guess that he would find difficulty in reading off the list of picks provided for him. (10) Why is Chad Johnson in Gainesville … and why is he meeting with Florida? Those were questions fans asked on Nov. 2 when it was revealed that the NFL free agent wide receiver – fresh off being embarrassed on national television when he was cut by the Miami Dolphins after being arrested for allegedly hitting his wife – had shown up in town and was taking pictures with players on the team one day before UF took on Missouri.

Continue Reading » Top 12 for 2012: Off the Field Stories of the Year

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FOUR BITS: Milton-Jones, James, Walker, MLB

1 » Former Florida Gators forward DeLisha Milton-Jones – a two-time WNBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time WNBA All-Star – became just the ninth player in league history to eclipse 5,000 career points after scoring seven in the Los Angeles Sparks 91-75 loss to Tulsa on Tuesday. Currently participating in her 14th WNBA season, Milton-Jones has spent most of her career with Los Angeles after coming out of Florida in 1999. She is a member of the UF Athletic Hall of Fame and was also named the SEC Player of the Year in 1997.

2 » It was a tough decision for him to make but former Gators running back/returner Brandon James eventually decided to hang up his cleats a few months ago and become a high school football coach. James got the opportunity to serve as an assistant coach for St. Joseph’s High School in St. Augustine, FL when his former youth baseball coach Bernie Packo hired him to join his new staff on April 4. However, following an unforeseen change of events, Packo was fired just 22 days later and James was promoted to head coach by the school administration last Thursday. In an exclusive interview with me published as a feature story on InsidetheGators.com (which you can read for FREE by clicking here), James discussed his decision to turn in his helmet for a whistle and give back to the community that once did so much for him.

3 » The No. 6 player in the country according to Rivals.com and the top remaining target on Florida head coach Billy Donovan’s radar as it pertains to the 2013 recruiting class, five-star power forward Chris Walker had some positive things to say about the Gators when interviewed Tuesday about his recruitment. Walker told Rivals ($) that his top five as of right now is Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio State and Louisville but that one team stands out at this point in time. “I guess you could say that [the Gators] are in the driver’s seat,” he said when asked if UF leads for his services. “I’m still open of course and maybe a few visits could change my mind.” Though he listed a top five, Walker is believed by many to eventually choose Florida and Kansas as his final two schools.

4 » A pair of Gators juniors – left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson and shortstop Nolan Fontana – officially signed their MLB rookie contracts on Tuesday, forgoing their final season of collegiate eligibility to turn pro. The final selection in the first round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox (No. 31 overall), Johnson signed a deal Tuesday worth more than $1.5 million. Fontana, the first pick in the second round of the draft (No. 61 overall), signed his contract with the Houston Astros and reportedly received a little more than his slot value of $875,000. Houston decided that he will report directly to Lexington (Class A), skipping all three short-season leagues that many rookies play in before joining the minors. WEEI Sportsradio out of Boston, MA also reports that Florida junior right-hander and third-round selection Austin Maddox is set to sign with the Red Sox for $350,000, which is $50,000 under his slot allotment of $400,000. It is unknown as of press time where Johnson and Maddox will begin their careers.

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Kent State outlasts No. 1 Florida baseball 5-4, eliminates Gators from 2012 College World Series

No. 1 Florida Gators baseball (47-20) was swept out of the College World Series for the third time in team history after falling 5-4 to the Kent State Golden Flashes (47-19) on Monday in an elimination game at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, NE.

After losing 7-3 to No. 8 South Carolina on Saturday, Florida fell to Kent State by giving up four unearned runs, committing two errors and missing numerous opportunities to hit with runners in scoring position.

Junior right-handed pitcher Hudson Randall started on the hill for the Gators but did not last long due to a health scare. Sophomore RHP Jonathon Crawford replaced him and picked up the loss despite not being expected to see the mound on Monday.

After suffering some bad luck in the top of the first, things got worse for Florida in the bottom portion of the inning. A throwing error by junior shortstop Nolan Fontana (1/4, R, BB) allowed Kent State to get a runner on base; he soon came around to score unearned after Randall gave up consecutive singles. There was then a delay in action as Randall (1.0 IP, 2 H, R, K) was spotted breathing heavily on the mound. He was treated for dehydration but remained on the hill to get the final two outs before calling it quits for the day with heat-related symptoms.

A fielding error by Gators freshman third baseman Josh Tobias gave the Golden Flashes life again in the second. Kent State plated their second run of the game three batters later after Tobias was unable to field an infield single and added two more immediately afterward thanks to a pair of singles up the middle. KSU registered four unearned runs on six hits with two errors committed by UF in the first two innings alone.

Florida got one back in the third as junior catcher Mike Zunino plated Tobias from second with a single up the middle, reducing their deficit to 4-1. Tobias (0/3, R) was on base after being hit by a pitch to lead off the inning.

The Gators gave the four-run lead back to the Golden Flashes one inning later, however, after Crawford (3.0 IP, 8 H, 4 R [1 ER], 3 K) threw a pair of wild pitches to allow a runner to score all the way from second.

Despite hitting numerous balls hard early in the contest, Florida had plenty of bad luck go their way as most found the gloves of Kent State defenders. UF was able to cut KSU’s lead down to three runs again in the sixth after a two-out RBI double by freshman left fielder Justin Shafer scored senior centerfielder Daniel Pigott (1/4, R), who reached base earlier in the frame on a single to left.

The Gators loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh courtesy of a base on balls and a pair of singles. Zunino hit an RBI single to score one run, and junior designated hitter Brian Johnson helped one cross the plate by hitting into a 4-6-3 double play that cut Florida’s deficit to just one run.

Senior left-hander Greg Larson (2.2 IP, 2 H, BB, K) filled in nicely for the Gators but was pulled for junior RHP Austin Maddox (1.1 IP) after placing runners on first and second with two outs in the seventh. Maddox went the rest of the way.

Florida freshman second baseman Casey Turgeon began the eighth with a single, but the Gators ended the frame by stranding two on base after Fontana lofted a ball to short, putting elimination three outs away.

UF began the ninth in similar fashion with senior right fielder Preston Tucker (1/3, 2 BB) walking on four-straight pitches, the sixth time that a lead-off runner got on base for Florida in the contest. Zunino (2/4, 2 RBI, BB) followed by also getting on board via four-straight balls (split over two pitchers), and sophomore Cody Dent (0/0) was called upon to pinch hit for Johnson and advance the runners. With one out, the game-tying run 90 feet away and go-ahead run on second, Turgeon (1/5) struck out on two questionable pitches and Shafer (2/5, RBI) hit his first pitch into right to end the game with a fly out.

Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan falls to 3-6 in his three-straight CWS appearances with Florida being swept both in 2010 and 2012; UF’s only two losses in 2011 came in the Championship Series to eventual national champion South Carolina.

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Teddy’s Catch: Gators primed for CWS (Part I)

A five-year member of the Florida Gators baseball team playing under head coaches Pat McMahon and Kevin O’Sullivan, former catcher Teddy Foster is now serving as an associate scout for the New York Mets and has joined OGGOA as a baseball columnist to provide his unique perspective on the team throughout the 2012 season.

Below is the first of a two-part look at Florida heading into the College World Series.

Florida Gators baseball is back in the College World Series. While everyone expected Florida to return to Omaha, NE this season riding the bats of junior catcher Mike Zunino and senior right fielder Preston Tucker and the arms of juniors righty Hudson Randall and lefty Brian Johnson, the Gators have also relied on youth both at the plate and on the mound to fill in some important gaps.

Playing in the CWS in unlike anything else a player will experience in college baseball. It pales in comparison to playing Florida State in Tallahassee, FL or even against Miami down in Coral Gables, FL. The stands are packed with 20,000-plus fans and the field is bigger than most that you play on during the year. Preparing for the event is nearly impossible if you’ve never been there before as a player.

My freshman year, the Gators defeated the Seminoles in the Super Regionals for the opportunity to head to Omaha, and it was crucial that we had an experienced senior-laden team to keep everyone grounded and focused. Fans should feel confident when cameras showed Zunino rallying the troops in the ninth inning against N.C. State; that leadership and ability to take control of the team not only by his words but by what he does on the field is immensely important.

Florida will be going to Omaha for the third-straight year, so their abundance of experience should play a critical role in keeping the younger players focused and hungry for that elusive championship. Your first trip to Omaha as a player is overwhelming, but this tournament is all business for the Gators as they strive to finally bring home the national title that has eluded the program for so long.

While everything may seem positive heading into the CWS, there is an issue with one of Florida’s most important players that has drawn my attention both as a scout and fan. Junior closer Austin Maddox again blew a ninth-inning lead in the second game of the Super Regional – his second destructive outing this postseason. While it was not anywhere near as statistically concerning as what he did against Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, it was still tough to watch as someone whose years of experience have allowed him to develop a sense about pitching prospects.

Maddox has struggled mightily for two reasons. First, he has slowly lost velocity on his fastball as the season has progressed. Initially pitching between 92-94 mph, Maddox was hitting around 89-92 mph against N.C. State. While this might seem like a minimal dropoff, this small difference is enormous at the plate and makes it easier for hitters to handle fastballs, especially inside pitches that become easier for hitters to react to and turn on. Second, Maddox’s slider has been downright horrendous. He bounced one behind a hitter at one point and hit a batter another. He could not locate his slider and therefore was forced to throw his now-average-velocity fastball over the heart of the plate because his slider had put him behind in the count so often. He may have simply been gripping the ball too hard or too tight when trying to throw the slider, hoping to give it more break and bite, but “choking” the ball also leads to less control.

Maddox is not injured, at least not to anyone’s knowledge, but his being overused this season has caused him to wear down the further the Gators go into the postseason.

Hopefully head coach Kevin O’Sullivan can tinker with Maddox’s slider grip and give him a few extra days of rest before he is called on to pitch in the CWS because he is one of the Gators’ most important players. Otherwise UF may have a major question to answer: Who can/would/should be called on to get them to the finish line in close games?

Part two of Teddy’s Catch will be published Friday morning!

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No. 1 Florida Gators baseball advances to College World Series with extra-inning 9-8 victory

No. 1 Florida Gators baseball (47-18) advanced to the College World Series for the third-straight season after completing a 9-8 victory in an extra-inning affair on Sunday against the No. 16 N.C. State Wolfpack (43-20) in the second game of Super Regional action at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, FL.

Florida swept the Super Regional from N.C. State after picking up a 7-1 victory on Saturday but needed seven pitchers, three clutch home runs and 10 full innings to register the come-from-behind win on Sunday.

Sophomore right-handed pitcher Jonathon Crawford started on the hill for UF and threw 17 pitches in his first two innings of work before a weather delay forced the teams off the field. He wound up returning following a 2:23 delay though his opponent, ace Carlos Rodon, ended his day with three strikeouts over three no-hit innings.

Upon returning to the mound, Crawford gave up a lead-off double to end a streak of 14.2 innings without allowing a hit dating back to May 22. He was then hit for an RBI double two batters later as the Wolfpack took a 1-0 lead through three innings.

The Gators did not waste time taking back control of the game as senior right fielder Preston Tucker (1/4, HR, RBI, R, BB, SB) led off the top of the fourth by turning on the first pitch he saw and sending it out of the park to tie the contest. The onslaught continued against N.C. State reliever Anthony Tzamtzis as Florida juniors catcher Mike Zunino and designated hitter Brian Johnson hit back-to-back doubles to put runners on second and third with no outs.

Freshman second baseman Casey Turgeon followed two batters later with an RBI single to right to score Zunino, giving UF a 2-1 lead and sending Tzamtzis to the showers. The Gators added two more runs to increase their advantage to 4-1 with freshman left fielder Justin Shafer hitting a sacrifice fly to center that scored Johnson, and Turgegon coming around to score after stealing a base and being knocked in via an RBI single to left by junior first baseman Vickash Ramjit (1/5, RBI).

The Wolfpack similarly responded by tagging Crawford (3.2 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, BB, 5 K) for three-straight two-out hits in the bottom of the fourth. With runners on first and second, RF Brian Austin smacked a two-RBI double to deep center that reduced his team’s deficit to 4-3 and brought senior RHP Greg Larson out of the bullpen.

Read the rest of the Florida-N.C. State game story…after the break!
Continue Reading » No. 1 Florida Gators baseball advances to College World Series with extra-inning 9-8 victory

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SIX BITS: Larson, Siler, Beal, Harvin, Mather

1 » Florida Gators senior right-handed pitcher Greg Larson became the ninth member of his team selected in the 2012 MLB Draft when he was chosen on Wednesday with the No. 631 overall pick in the 20th round by the Boston Red Sox. Larson is the third Florida thrower to be picked by Boston in the draft after the Red Sox chose junior lefty Brian Johnson with the No. 31 overall pick in the first round and junior righty Austin Maddox with the No. 118 overall pick in the third round. It is the second time in team history that Boston has picked three players from UF (1979).

2 » Former Gators linebacker Brandon Siler signed a one-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011 with hopes of proving that he could be the full-time starter and deserved a multi-year contract. Unfortunately for Siler, he tore his Achilles and never stepped on the field for the team in a regular season game; fortunately Kansas City decided to give him a second chance and signed him to a one-year extension in January. “It’s been frustrating,” Siler told the team’s website following the Chiefs’ seventh organized team activity practice. “My momma brought it to my attention that I haven’t been out of football this long since I was seven years old and that kind of puts everything in perspective. Football is what I do. [...] It’s my job to go out there and do what I do, and I can’t do that right now, so I shouldn’t be talked about. I plan on getting back out there and showing what I can do. [...] I’m just going to keep working with the trainers and follow what they have me doing. I want to get back out there immediately, of course, but they have a plan for me and I’m just going to follow that.”

Read four more BITS (and watch a video interview)…after the break!
Continue Reading » SIX BITS: Larson, Siler, Beal, Harvin, Mather

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