Preview: Florida Gators in the 2012 MLB Draft

Though it may be to less fanfare than its football and basketball counterparts, the 2012 MLB Draft officially begins Monday night at 7 p.m. live on MLB Network. One year after the Florida Gators saw a school-record 11 team members selected, Florida may have more players picked in the first round than ever have been previously in a single draft.

The MLB’s first-year player draft consists of 40 rounds and is open to both high school players and juniors and seniors in college. Round one (including compensatory selections) will take place Monday with rounds 2-15 occurring Tuesday beginning at noon and Rounds 16-40 concluding the draft on Wednesday beginning at noon. High school players and juniors in college have the opportunity to decline their rookie contracts and continue playing amateur baseball should they choose to do so.

Thirteen members of the Gators baseball team (five seniors, eight juniors) are eligible to be selected this year including some of the most talented players in the program. OGGOA, with some help from baseball columnist and New York Mets scout Teddy Foster, takes a look at where they might wind up and what their future holds.

Junior catcher Mike Zunino
Projection: First round, pick 1-10
Rankings: No. 3 overall by MLB, No. 6 overall by ESPN
Lowdown: The consensus best catcher in the draft of any age, Zunino has proven he can do it all at any level by playing stellar defense (.994 fielding) and hammering home runs on offense. Originally selected in the 30th round of the 2009 draft, Zunino instead decided to attend Florida and became just the second Gators baseball player to be named SEC Player of the Year, earning the honor in 2011. He was a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award in 2011 and also named an All-American that year, garnering first-team honors by three of five voting bodies. Still not having completed his third year with the team, Zunino already holds the UF career record for sacrifice flies (17) and is having a solid junior campaign with team-highs of 18 homers and 60 RBIs along with 50 runs scored, 28 walks, a .316 batting average and a .667 slugging percentage. There is no questioning Zunino’s potential; the only thing left to figure out is his draft slot.

Junior left-handed pitcher/designated hitter Brian Johnson
Projection: First round, pick 20-supplemental
Rankings: No. 36 overall by MLB, No. 28 overall by ESPN
Lowdown: Though he will get looks as a batter, Johnson’s true value (both in the draft and long-term in pro baseball) will likely come from his work on the mound. He will likely wind up a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher as he can throw four pitches for strikes and has good breaking pitches in addition to a fastball around 90 mph. “Johnson is just too good on the mound and has too much potential to not focus on pitching,” Foster wrote in April. “He is not the first and certainly will not be the last two-way player to end up on the mound. Johnson knows his destiny is as a pitcher.” A 27th round selection in the 2009 draft, Johnson was unanimous Freshman All-American who made the SEC All-Freshman Team as both a pitcher and designated hitter. During his sophomore season he was a semifinalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award and Dick Howser Trophy and earned a first-team All-SEC nod for his work at the plate. This season he is 8-4 on the mound with a 3.56 ERA and a 68/15 K/BB ratio while pitching a team-high 86.0 innings. Johnson is also hitting .310 with five homers, 40 RBIs and 10 walks.

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Gators baseball racks up 2012 All-SEC honors

A league-high four Florida Gators baseball players received 2012 All-SEC First Team honors on Tuesday as voted on by the 12 confernece coaches.

Junior catcher Mike Zunino, the 2011 SEC Player of the Year, led the way for Florida on the first team and is joined by senior right fielder Preston Tucker, junior left-handed pitcher/designated hitter Brian Johnson and junior lefty reliever Steven Rodriguez. Zunino, Tucker and Johnson also made the 2011 All-SEC First Team.

Junior shortstop Nolan Fontana earned 2012 All-SEC Second Team recognition, third baseman Josh Tobias was chosen as a 2012 SEC All-Freshman Team member, and both Fontana and Zunino received placement on the 2012 SEC All-Defensive Team.

» SEC Player of the Year: Raph Rhymes, LSU
» SEC Pitcher of the Year: Chris Stratton, Mississippi State
» SEC Freshman of the Year: Austin Cousino, Kentucky
» SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year: Michael Roth, South Carolina
» SEC Coach of the Year: Gary Henderson, Kentucky

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Vanderbilt swipes victory from Florida baseball, eliminates Gators from SEC Tournament

Down one with three outs to go, the Vanderbilt Commodores (33-25) rallied to score five runs on five hits in the top of the ninth inning and pulled off an 8-6 win over No. 2 Florida Gators baseball (42-18) in the semifinals of the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Saturday at Regions Park in Hoover, AL.

Junior closer Austin Maddox imploded for Florida after coming on to get the final three outs, giving up a lead-off double to right and eventually allowing Vanderbilt to tie the game after a sacrifice bunt, hit batter and suicide squeeze.

Unfortunately for the Gators, it only got worse from there.

The Commodores attempted a double steal and advanced a runner to third with another being thrown out at second. Vanderbilt then hit an infield single (the runner stole second on the play) to go up 5-4 and loaded the bases following an intentional walk, double steal and another intentional walk. With the bags full, the Commodores pulled off a triple steal to score their third run of the inning. A two-run single followed to give Vanderbilt an 8-4 advantage and increase Florida’s suffering.

The Gators allowed more stolen bases in one frame (seven) than had ever been executed in an entire SEC Tournament game in the history of the event.

VU scored two runs off of sophomore right-handed pitcher Karsten Whitson in the top of the first and sent him off after a rough 2.1 innings. Whitson gave up five hits and three runs (two earned) with two walks and no strikeouts in his outing.

Florida responded with a run in the bottom of the first and tied the game at 3-3 in the third when junior designated hitter Brian Johnson (4/5, 4 RBI) hit a two-run double to right center scoring junior catcher Mike Zunino (2/5, 2 R) and senior right fielder Preston Tucker (1/5, 3 R).

The Gators achieved what they thought would be the game-winning run in the fourth as junior shortstop Nolan Fontana (2/4, RBI, BB) singled to score junior first baseman Vickash Ramjit (2/4, R) and added two more runs in the ninth though the late offensive outburst was too little too late for Florida.

Though Whitson and Maddox both struggled for the Gators on the mound, Florida’s middle relief – senior RHP Greg Larson (4.0 IP, H, BB, 3 K) and junior LHP Steven Rodriguez (1.2 IP, H, K) – was fantastic.

Despite UF’s struggles on Saturday, the Gators have shown signs of hitting their stride over the last two weeks. Florida has scored six or more runs in five of seven games and lost two contests by just one run.

The Gators will remain a top-ranked team on Monday when they learn of their seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament; Florida will find out whether or not they are one of 16 regional host sites for the event on Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

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Florida tops Auburn in SEC Tournament opener

No. 2 Florida Gators baseball (41-16) continued their winning ways over the Auburn Tigers (30-27), outscoring their opponents 6-1 in the opening round of the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Tuesday at Regions Park in Hoover, AL.

Florida just concluded the 2012 regular season with a three-game series at Auburn last Thursday-Saturday. The Gators picked up two wins over the Tigers and outscored their hosts 20-6 over the three-day period.

UF sophomore right-handed pitcher Jonathon Crawford was excellent in his outing, improving to 5-2 by allowing just one run (unearned) on two hits with four walks and a career-high nine strikeouts in 5.2 innings. Junior lefty Steven Rodriguez, senior RHP Greg Larson and junior closer Austin Maddox combined to toss the remaining 3.1 innings, allowing a single hit while striking out two and walking one.

Freshmen batters provided most of the offense for Florida on Wednesday. Left fielder Justin Shafer (2/4) drove in three runs (two in the second, one in the sixth), and second baseman Casey Turgeon (1/3, R) smacked a two-run double in the sixth. The Gators also got a RBI from junior catcher Mike Zunino (1/4), whose two-out double extended UF’s lead to 6-1 in the seventh.

Florida will have a day off before facing a yet-to-be-determined opponent on Thursday.

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Florida baseball falls to Auburn in series finale

An opportunity to capture a share of the 2012 Southeastern Conference Championship for the regular season slipped through the grasp of No. 3 Florida Gators baseball on Saturday after a game-ending double play thwarted the Gators’ chances. Florida (40-16, 18-12 SEC) fell 5-4 to the Auburn Tigers (30-26, 13-17 SEC) in their regular season finale after winning the first two games of the weekend series played at Plainsman Park in Auburn, AL.

After shutting out Auburn 6-0 on Thursday, UF routed their hosts 10-1 on Friday in a game that featured junior left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson (6-4) giving up just two hits and two walks while allowing one run (unearned) and striking out seven in 7.0 innings. The Gators used a trio of homers from senior right fielder Preston Tucker (3/5, HR, 2 RBI, 2 R) and juniors catcher Mike Zunino (1/2, HR, RBI, 2 R, BB) and first baseman Vickash Ramjit (2/3, HR, 3 RBI, 2 R, BB) to defeat the Tigers.

Florida hoped to receive some help from their SEC rivals to make them eligible for the league title and got just that on Friday as LSU toppled South Carolina 3-2 in 10 innings to open the door for the Gators. A victory by the UF would have netted them a share of the title, but Florida fell just short of that goal after outscoring AU 16-1 in the first two games of the series.

Sophomore right-hander Karsten Whitson (5.0 IP, 3 H, 2 R [1 ER], 2 BB, 2 K) took the hill for the Gators on Saturday and (with some help from his offense) earned a 4-2 lead before exiting the game. Florida rallied to score three runs in the top of the second and added another in the fourth to achieve that advantage.

UF led until the bottom of the seventh when Auburn took advantage of junior LHP Steven Rodriguez, who surprisingly struggled in his relief outing. Rodriguez (3-2) gave up three earned runs on three hits while striking out two in his one inning of work.

Down one run, the Gators rallied in the top of the ninth and had runners at the corners after Tucker singled to right and Zunino doubled to left. However, Johnson flied out to right field and Tucker was thrown out at the plate to end the game.

Despite losing the game and their opportunity at a conference regular season title, Florida received three solid outings from their starters and showed renewed offensive efficiency over the weekend by scoring 20 runs over the course of the three games.

The Gators will now move on to take part in the 2012 SEC Tournament from May 22-27 in Hoover, AL.

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FOUR BITS: transfer, Noah, baseball, Brantley

1 » The Florida Gators announced Wednesday that 6’6” center Vicky McIntyre has decided to transfer to the University of Florida and will be eligible to play in 2013-14 after sitting out a year per NCAA transfer rules. McIntyre, who has played at Oklahoma State the last two season and will have two years of eligibility remaining after a year off, decided to transfer after two coaches she was extremely close to perished in a plane crash in Nov. Once she steps on the court for practice, McIntyre will be the tallest player to play for Florida women’s basketball in the program’s 40-year history. “We get a kid with her size and length but now combine that with the experience she gained in [a] Big 12 program, plus the work ethic, attitude and excitement about being a Gator,” head coach Amanda Butler said. “That’s a winning combination.” McIntyre averaged 11.2 points and 5.5 rebounds during her freshman season and hopes to regain that form.

2 » Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah was forced to miss the final two games of his team’s first-round playoff series after severely spraining his left ankle during Game 3 and is becoming increasingly frustrated with how often he has been injured over the last two seasons. Noah said on Monday that he plans to strengthen his ankles in the offseason and do whatever he can to ensure he is in tip-top shape heading into next season. “I’m just frustrated because I really feel like I really worked hard on trying to keep my body right,” he told ESPNChicago.com. “I feel like the ankle injury was unfortunate. I think just going full speed onto somebody’s ankle and landing on somebody’s foot – that could have happened to anybody. It’s frustrating but nobody died. You learn from it and move on.” Despite his most recent setback, Noah still plans to participate in the 2012 London Olympics as part of the French National Team. “I’m gunning for it. I’m hoping that I’ll be healthy and be able to play,” he said.

3 » ESPN’s Keith Law released his first mockup for the 2012 MLB Draft on Tuesday and slotted Gators junior catcher Mike Zunino as the No. 5 overall selection in the first round by Kansas City. Zunino is widely believed to be a top-five prospect and the highest-ranked college baseball player. Law has also listed juniors left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson (No. 28), shortstop Nolan Fontana (No. 44) and lefty reliever Steven Rodriguez (No. 71) on his general list of top-100 players. Senior right fielder Preston Tucker, and junior righties Hudson Randall and Austin Maddox are also “potential top 200 picks,” according to ESPN’s Jason A. Churchill.

4 » The United States Social Security Administration this week released the country’s most popular baby names for the past year (2011) and noted that the name with the biggest jump in popularity for males is Brantley. From the press release: “For the boys, there could be some controversy over Brantley – depending on whether you are a fan of college football or country music. Arguments could be made that the popularity of the name comes from John Brantley, the quarterback for perennial powerhouse The University of Florida, or from Brantley Gilbert, the singer with the number one country hit ‘Country Must Be Country Wide.’ If you like both football and country music, you’re a winner either way!” Yes, that is from a real government press release.

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Zunino’s bomb powers Gators to series victory

A solo home run by junior catcher Mike Zunino in the eighth inning on Sunday powered No. 5 Florida Gators baseball past the No. 25 Mississippi State Bulldogs 2-1 and delivered the team’s second series victory in as many weekends.

Florida (38-14, 16-11 SEC) took down Mississippi State (31-20, 13-14 SEC) on Friday (4-1) before being shutout for only the second time this season on Saturday (2-0). Sunday’s 2-1 triumph marked UF’s fifth win in the last seven games and a victory in their final home series of the regular season.

The Bulldogs and Gators each posted zeroes in the first two innings before both scoring a single run in their respective frame in the third inning. MSU’s came via a solo shot while UF’s crossed the plate thanks to a rally concluded by a RBI groundout by senior right fielder Preston Tucker (0/4, RBI).

Sophomore right-handed pitcher Karsten Whitson got the start for Florida but lasted just 3.1 innings. He struck out four and allowed just two hits and an earned run but coughed up five walks, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch as well.

Five Gators relievers closed out the contest for Whitson with juniors lefty Steven Rodriguez and RHP Austin Maddox doing most of the heavy lifting. Rodriguez struck out three and walked two in 2.0 innings while Maddox (3-2) pitched the final 2.1 innings and struck out two. He received the victory thanks to the game-winning bomb by Zunino (1/2, HR, RBI, R, 2 BB) in the eighth.

Florida committed three errors in the contest but none led to runs.

UF will take on Samford on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. and will remain in the state of Alabama to conclude the regular season with a three-game series against Auburn.

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SIX BITS: baseball, Guy, Tebow, Lochte, Horford

1 » No. 5 Florida Gators baseball (37-13, 15-10 SEC) got off to a hot start in their final home series of the regular season, taking down the No. 25 Mississippi State Rebels (30-19, 12-13 SEC) on Senior Day at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, FL. Florida won 4-1 behind a strong outing by junior right-hander Hudson Randall, who gave up an earned run in the fifth but otherwise scattered five hits in his 7.0 innings while striking out two. Junior lefty Steven Rodriguez (2.0 IP, H, 4 K) was dominant in closing out the game and earned his third save of the season. The Gators rallied to cross the plate once each in the second and third and added a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth when senior center fielder Daniel Pigott (2/4, HR, 2 RBI, R) hit a two-run homer to left. Five seniors including Pigott, RHP Greg Larson, utility player Jeff Moyer, outfielder Tyler Thompson and right fielder Preston Tucker were honored on Friday though a handful of the team’s juniors may also be playing their final regular season home series at McKethan Stadium.

2 » It was reported back in January that Florida had offered a preferred walk-on opportunity to three-star quarterback Jacob Guy (Dade City, FL), but the player had chosen to take some time to consider his options before deciding where he would attend school in 2012 and beyond. Guy has finally made that decision and announced on Friday that he will turn down scholarship offers from schools like Massachusetts, Ohio and Western Michigan in order to walk on with the Gators. “I”ve always been a Gators fan,” Guy told the Tampa Bay Times. “The opportunity to go up there to Gainesville and play for the Gators got me there.” Guy set his high school’s single season records for passing yards (2,672) and touchdowns (42) in his senior year and put up a brilliant line in the Class 5A region final when he completed 17-of-18 passes and scored two touchdowns (one rushing). At 6’5” and 200 lbs., Guy’s size is exceptional for a signal caller. Should Florida’s roster remain unchanged heading into the summer, he will be the ninth quarterback in camp with only four on scholarship.

3 » E! has decided to air a 30-minute special on New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow. Unfortunately for Tebow and his fans, the special (which will air sometime in July according to Sports Illustrated), is being created without his participation and therefore is unlikely to include any unique material. “Tebow is a pop culture phenomenon and the interest in his life expands beyond the world of sports. He’s a compelling personality and has a fascinating story,” a network spokesman told SI’s Richard Deitsch.

4 » Former Gators swimmer Ryan Lochte is ready and raring to go for the 2012 London Olympics this summer and his manufactured feud with Michael Phelps is beginning to pick up steam heading into the games. The two have been going head-to-head all year and will likely be in many of the same events in the Olympics, so SI.com took a look at how the teammates and rivals are fairing with 78 days to go (as of Thursday) until the games begin.

As Phelps peeled back after Beijing, Lochte ramped up. Phelps won five golds and one silver at the 2009 world championships. Lochte won four gold and a bronze. Phelps won another five events at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships. Lochte won six, bettering Phelps for the first time at a major meet.

Then came the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, where Lochte won five golds and one bronze to Phelps’ four golds, two silvers and one bronze. Lochte won both head-to-heads, the 200 free and 200 individual medley, by a combined half-second over Phelps. That was enough to earn Lochte the title of the new world’s best swimmer.

5 » Forward/center Al Horford fought his way back from a torn right pectoral to play in the final three games of the season for the Atlanta Hawks. A major contributor in those three contests, Horford found himself at the foul line with three seconds left and an opportunity to tie the game if he made both free throws. After missing the first one, Horford made the second and Atlanta wound up losing as there was not enough time for them to come back and get another good shot. Many fans wondered whether should have missed that second free throw considering the team was down two with no timeouts remaining. A day after the contest, Horford spoke about that possibility. “I didn’t really think about it. That’s something I probably should have given some thought,” he said. “The first one felt good. I was surprised I missed it. Looking back I should have missed the second one, not realizing we didn’t have any timeouts. I did [realize it] before but there was a lot of stuff going on through the game.” The real question is why none of his coaches relayed it to Horford to do just that following the initial miss.

6 » Former Florida football players quarterback John Brantley, wide receiver Deonte Thompson and defensive end William Green all signed undrafted free agent deals with their respective teams on Friday. Brantley and Thompson were two of 19 players to come to terms with the Baltimore Ravens while Green was inked by the Cleveland Browns. Offensive lineman Dan Wenger continues to participate in Jets mini camp as he hopes to earn a scholarship, and former Gators safety Will Hill, who did not a legitimate look from any NFL team after declaring for the draft a year early in 2011, is currently working out and hoping to earn a job with the New York Giants.

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