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.

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FOUR BITS: Henry, Whitson, Harvin, Wambach

1 » The Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wednesday announced that former Florida Gators punter Chas Henry has received a one-year contract. Henry, signed as an undrafted free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles before the 2011 season, remained the team’s starter heading into 2012 but was replaced at the start of the season with Mat McBriar. He tried out with other teams throughout the year but was not able to find a new job when all was said and done. In Tampa Bay, Henry will start out as training camp competition for incumbent starter Michael Koenen, who is signed through 2016. Henry averaged 44.0 yards per punt during his time with the Eagles; Koenen averaged 45.3 yards per punt during the 2012 season and also handles the Bucs’ kickoff duties.

2 » Florida junior right-handed pitcher Karsten Whitson, expected to enter the 2013 season as the team’s No. 2 starter, will be sidelined indefinitely with shoulder fatigue, the school announced. Whitson, who has missed significant time with multiple injuries during his sophomore season with the Gators, is a power pitcher with a mid-90s fastball and devastating slider. He went 8-0 with a 2.45 ERA in 2011 but pitched just 33.1 innings in 2012 and went 4-0 with a 3.51 ERA. His shoulder has long been an issue, however, and Baseball America reported on Wednesday that he met with Dr. James Andrews for a consultation. As of press time, the results of that meeting are unknown. Whitson originally joined Florida rather than signing a $2.1 million offer from the San Diego Padres, which selected him with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft. “We knew there was a possibility he might not pitch the first two weekends,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We were kind of prepared for this, so it hasn’t really changed a whole lot in regards to this weekend.”

3 » As the 2013 NFL league season gets closer to starting (March 12), reports about wide receiver Percy Harvin and the Minnesota Vikings continue to swirl. Now that it is out in the open that Minnesota is almost definitely trading Harvin before the season begins, reports are noting Harvin is looking for a new contract similar to what top-tier wideouts Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald have received (eight years, $130-150 million with $50-60 million guaranteed) and will holdout from minicamp and training camp if he does not receive one. And while the Vikings are looking to trade Harvin due to a combination of cost and questionable off-the-field demeanor, running back Adrian Peterson – who won the league’s most valuable player award this past season – does not want the only other playmaker on his team going anywhere. “To be honest with you, I don’t know if we will or not. But me, individually, and giving you my opinion, I wouldn’t trade him for nothing,” he said on KFAN-FM in Minneapolis, MN. Harvin was garnering MVP consideration during the first half of the season and still led Minnesota in receptions (62) and receiving yards (677) despite playing just nine games (leaving the last one early after injuring his ankle).

4 » U.S. Women’s National Team captain and former Gators striker Abby Wambach played in her 200th international match on Wednesday, scoring a goal at 51’ and helping lead the United States past Scotland 3-1. Now the eighth American to play at least 200 games as a member of the USWNT, Wambach is also inching closer to former teammate Mia Hamm’s world-record international goals mark. Her shot into the net on Wednesday marked the 153rd of her career (63rd on a header), moving her within five goals of Hamm’s record of 158.

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Teddy’s Catch: Florida’s worst-case scenario

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.

Florida’s baseball season has ended earlier than anyone expected. While it is a bit disappointing that the Gators did not make a deeper run in the College World Series, it is still an achievement to just get to Omaha, NE and perform against the top teams in the country. While many may be quick to point fingers at players, coaches and umpires, let’s take a deep breath, step back and evaluate the two games UF played before jumping to conclusions. Florida could not buy a break – and sometimes that’s just the way baseball goes – but there are some things that could have been done to help the team get through both games without suffering losses.

In the South Carolina game, UF was cruising along, leading USC midway through the game. Then in the fifth inning, junior left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson completely lost his usually good control. While that is hard to predict in the middle of the game, it is an easier fix than most people thin…and no, I’m not talking about taking him out of the game. Johnson couldn’t locate his fastball, but his curveball still effective; he could have gone to that and his changeup and hoped to find his fastball later. Instead, head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and junior catcher Mike Zunino continued to call fastballs during the inning and Johnson kept serving them up over the middle of the plate. Zunino also stayed put and did not take charge of the situation, heading out to the mound to try and straighten out Johnson. Showing leadership when your pitcher is struggling is key to being a good catcher, and it is something that Zunino usually does with great success.

There are plenty of things to point your finger at throughout that game other than Johnson’s bad fifth inning. The Gators made too many errors, failed to sacrifice bunt runners over, and struggled with the basic catch-and-throw fundamentals they are usually so good at doing. Those things happen in baseball, though usually not all in the same game for the top team in the nation. Sometimes you can’t help those things but that’s not to say that nothing could have been done to give Florida a better chance.

Read the rest of Teddy’s Catch…after the break!
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Teddy’s Catch: Gators primed for CWS (Part II)

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 second of a two-part look at Florida heading into the College World Series. Part one of Teddy’s Catch was published Thursday morning.

On an extremely positive note, many of the freshmen on this Florida baseball team have continued their solid seasons and gained some much-needed confidence and experience down the stretch. The Gators have seen some solid postseason play from freshmen infielders Casey Turgeon and Josh Tobias. Tobias has made a number of spectacular defensive plays at third base but also had two extremely clutch hits on Sunday (lead-off double in the ninth and the RBI single in the 10th to pad the lead).

It may have only been one measly double, but it was huge for his confidence as a hitter since he has struggled at the plate this year. Turgeon at second base joined Tobias at the bottom of the order with some clutch hits of his own and has also been playing quite well in the field. You can see him getting more and more comfortable at the plate not only game-to-game but also at bat-to-at bat.

These two freshmen are getting it done but Florida has also seen some fantastic outings from their young pitchers including sophomore starter Jonathon Crawford and a number of their bullpen arms. These guys are crucial to UF succeeding in Omaha.

One youngster who has been the odd man out lately as it pertains to the Gators’ weekend rotation is sophomore righty Karsten Whitson. It has been a tough season for Whitson who battled injuries early in the season and lost his spot in the rotation to the red-hot Crawford. Whitson, however, kept his head and confidence up and came through with what I think was the MVP performance of the Super Regional. He came into the game in the ninth with runners on base, struck out two, preserved the tie and extended the game into extra innings.

A former early first-round pick, Whitson showed exactly why he earned that designation on Sunday. He was pitching between 92-94 mph with an incredible slider and even mixed in a changeup or two that made the left-handed hitters look foolish.

Some scouts have been concerned about Whitson’s health and have said in recent weeks that they would be hesitant to draft him in the first round again next season. If he can stay healthy and pitch next year like he did against N.C. State in a short relief outing, he will be one of the first college pitchers taken in the MLB Draft – guaranteed.

Florida will open up against two-time defending national champion South Carolina on Saturday. The Gamecocks will likely throw their ace, southpaw Michael Roth, who was a ninth-round pick in the MLB Draft this year but is nonetheless extremely talented. He rarely throws harder that 86 mph, but his movement and repertoire of pitches is impressive, much like former Gators lefty Stephen Locke.

Junior lefty will take the mound for Florida and make his first start since the SEC Tournament. Johnson has experience both pitching in the CWS and against South Carolina. While he may have been the second- or even third-best starter in the Gators’ weekend rotation, he will be the first pitcher used this time around and for good reason: Johnson has won both games he started against the Gamecocks this year. The most recent decision was a complete game win in which he only gave up two earned runs in a nine-inning masterpiece.

Johnson’s ability to throw his fastball in the low 90s and mix in a slow curveball and deceptive changeup make him an easy choice to keep USC’s power hitters off-balance. South Carolina’s big slugger is first baseman Christian Walker, who struggles with left-handed pitchers’ change-ups. In the end it was a relatively easy choice for head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and not much of a surprise at all. Should Johnson continue his dominance of USC, the Gators’ pitching staff will be set up great for a deep run.

UF will have to beat one of the best teams in the country to stay in the winner’s bracket and must do so against their best pitcher and with the team’s collective chest out as they have not lost a postseason game in more than two years. It will be tough, but Florida has the better team on paper. It is time to put up or shut up and for O’Sullivan and the boys, there is no time like the present.

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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!
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Teddy’s Catch: Gators, O’Sullivan hot right now

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.

Florida baseball is heating up again, and it could not be coming at a better time for the Gators. After cruising through the Gainesville Regional, Florida learned it would have a few days off before they take on N.C. State in Super Regional action beginning on Saturday. However, before that could occur, many of the team’s players had their minds slightly preoccupied as the 2012 MLB Draft was held Monday-Wednesday. Nine Gators were selected in the first 20 rounds, all of which are likely to leave the team before next season. With this life-changing event now behind them, Florida’s most talented players can now focus on what lies ahead – a potential College World Series berth.

UF’s attention has turned to N.C. State, which defeated Southeastern Conference powerhouse Vanderbilt in the finals of the Raleigh Regional. Despite that impressive performance, the Wolfpack is unlikely to be able to similarly stop the Gators. Sophomore right-hander Johnathon Crawford is coming off an impressive no-hitter against Bethune-Cookman and juniors righty Hudson Randall and lefty Brian Johnson both had strong outings. Randall will begin the Super Regional on the hill for Florida, which also has an extremely solid bullpen that has continued to build its confidence.

It is also good to see the Gators’ offense back on track. Florida had sputtered offensively at times this year but putting up 15 runs against a solid Georgia Tech team in their last regional game is certainly promising. The return of freshman third baseman Josh Tobias has also been a lift for the Gators because that pushes junior Cody Dent, a massive offensive liability, out of the lineup.

Junior catcher Mike Zunino continued his dominance of college pitching with another pair of homers, and Florida’s lineup finally appears to be both balanced and healthy. This is especially important for the Gators because it makes the practice of “pitching around players” (walking them instead of throwing pitches in the strike zone) a waste of time for the opposition in most circumstances.

To quote my old friend Joakim Noah: “The Gator boys are hot right now!”

Read the rest of the latest edition of Teddy’s Catch…after the break!
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Gators rout Yellow Jackets 15-3 in Gainesville Regional final, advance to Super Regional

The rout was on at McKethan Stadium on Sunday evening in the finals of the Gainesville Regional as No. 1 Florida Gators baseball (45-18) scored in four of the first five innings and advanced to the Super Regionals for the fourth-straight season with a 15-3 demolition of the No. 24 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (38-26).

In addition to a 15-run performance from the Gators’ offense that included a pair of homers and multiple two-out RBIs, UF received a solid outing from junior left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson, who only had to pitch five innings but gave up just one earned run on three hits with four strikeouts.

Florida immediately got on board in a big way, using a pair of two-RBI hits to take an early 4-0 lead on Georgia Tech in the first. Senior right fielder Preston Tucker and junior Mike Zunino got on via one-out walks and were brought home on a double down the right field line by senior centerfielder Daniel Pigott. Freshman second baseman Casey Turgeon was walked and joined Pigott on the bags; the duo each advanced a base when a pick-off attempt rolled into center and came around to score on a single up the middle by freshman left fielder Justin Shafer (1/4, 2 RBI).

The Gators wasted no time in increasing their already substantial lead, using a three-run homer by Zunino to jump ahead 7-0 in the bottom of the second. Florida once again had men on first and second with one out after Fontana singled up the middle and Tucker followed suit through the right side. Zunino then crushed the second pitch he saw to left-center, smacking his second bomb in as many games.

GT put a small dent in their deficit as LF Evan Martin hit a solo shot to left in the third, but Zunino quickly got UF’s seven-run advantage back with his school record-tying 17th career sacrifice fly to score Fontana from third base in the fourth inning.

It did not take long for the Gators to start piling on the runs again as Florida plated seven more in the fifth. After Turgeon doubled with one out and junior first baseman Vickash Ramjit (0/3, R, BB) joined him on base via a four-pitch walk, freshman third baseman Josh Tobias (1/3, 2 RBI, R) smacked a two-out, two-RBI double to clear the bags. He was brought home one batter later as Fontana (2/4, RBI, 3 R, BB, SB) singled through the left side to put the Gators ahead 11-1.

The onslaught did not stop there for Florida’s bats, however, as a single by Tucker (2/4, 3 R, BB) and wild pitch on a third strike to Zunino 1/3, HR, 4 RBI, 3 R, BB) loaded the bags for Johnson, who was walked to score another run for the Gators. Pigott (2/4, 4 RBI, R, BB) followed with a two-RBI single, and Turgeon (2/3, RBI, 2 R, BB) joined the party with a single through the right side to plate Johnson (0/3, RBI, R, BB) and increase UF’s advantage to 15-1 through five innings.

Johnson’s outing came to an end after five innings. He was replaced in the sixth by freshman LHP Bobby Poyner (1.0 IP, H, ER, K), who gave up a solo homer to the second batter he faced, 3B Sam Dove, that reduced Florida’s lead to 15-2. The Gators used a combination of sophomore right-hander Karsten Whitson (1.0 IP, 2 K), freshman RHP Johnny Magliozzi (0.2 IP, H, ER), senior LHP Greg Larson (0.1 IP) and junior RHP Austin Maddox (1.0 IP, H, K) to close out the contest.

Florida will begin Super Regional action on Friday or Saturday at McKethan Stadium against the winner of the Raleigh Regional. Two-seed Vanderbilt has the upper hand with a 2-0 record in the double-elimination event and is in the process of playing one-seed North Carolina State (2-1) in the finals (as of press time).

Gators on the 2012 Gainesville All-Regional Team: Zunino, Tucker, Fontana, Crawford, Turgeon (most outstanding player)

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Teddy’s Catch: Now the real fun begins…

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.

Continue Reading » Teddy’s Catch: Now the real fun begins…

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