UF baseball rolling heading into SEC play

March, 15, 2012
3/15/12
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan is doing a lot of nitpicking these days.

When you’re the No. 1 team in the nation with a 16-1 record and have just tied a school record for consecutive victories, there’s really not much going wrong. So it’s all about fixing the little things as the Gators prepare to begin Southeastern Conference play this weekend at home against Vanderbilt.

"We’ve still got some things to work on," O’Sullivan said after the Gators’ 9-2 victory over sixth-ranked Florida State on Tuesday night in Gainesville. "We missed a couple signs [against FSU], a couple of hit-and-run signs, made the error there that scored the two runs. But overall, how disappointed can you be?"

Not very, because UF is playing pretty well in every aspect of the game. The Gators came out of the FSU game leading the nation in home runs (27) and are hitting .312 with 62 extra-base hits. Of the seven players with at least 50 at-bats, six are hitting .300 or better -- including catcher Mike Zunino (.417) and right fielder Preston Tucker (.313). Those two have a combined 13 home runs and 39 RBIs.

"The bottom half of our lineup is really swinging the bats well," said Tucker, who has six homers and 16 RBIs. "When the bats come alive there, and there’s guys on base for guys at the top of the lineup, it’s really tough to pitch to a lot of these hitters."

Two of those .300 hitters are freshmen Taylor Gushue (.308) and Casey Turgeon (.300). Turgeon has started 16 games at second base while Gushue has started at catcher, first base and DH. Gushue graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled in January. He homered on the first college pitch he saw in the season opener against Cal State Fullerton.

"I don’t know if we’ve had the same lineup two days in a row," O’Sullivan said. "We’ve gotten a lot of different guys some action. Our guys that we’re counting on have played well up until this point. We’ve had a lot of young players, some freshmen, come in and have had some really good moments these 17 games."

So has the bullpen, which is 9-1 with seven saves and a 1.77 ERA this season. The group has given up just 14 earned runs, struck out 76 and walked only 12 in 71 innings. Austin Maddox already has six saves, which is just shy of halfway to the school’s single-season record (13), and the Gators still have 39 regular-season games remaining.

Against FSU, four relievers held the Seminoles to two hits and struck out four in 6.1 innings. That allowed UF to overcome a 2-0 deficit and post its 10th come-from-behind victory this season.

"Our bullpen showed that we can just throw anybody out there and they won’t give up a run," Tucker said. "And if they give up one, they won’t give up two."

The only concern the Gators have is that the starting pitching hasn’t been as dominant as expected. Karsten Whitson has thrown just 5.2 innings this season because of arm fatigue, and O’Sullivan is being cautious with the 2011 Freshman All-American. The rest of UF’s projected weekend rotation -- Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson -- are a combined 4-0, but they have ERAs of 3.65 and 4.12, respectively. Randall was 11-3 with a 2.17 ERA last season, and Johnson went 8-3 with a 3.62 ERA in 2011. Both, along with Whitson, were preseason All-Americans.

Still, that’s probably a bit of nitpicking because UF’s starting pitchers have gone a combined 7-0 and have struck out 60 and walked only 17 in 78.2 innings.

The Gators have had this impressive start against quality competition. In addition to Tuesday’s victory over No. 6 FSU, the Gators went 2-1 against No. 11 Cal State Fullerton to open the season and swept No. 10 Miami in a three-game series in Coral Gables earlier this month.

That’s good preparation for the start of SEC play, even though it comes against a Vanderbilt team that was 6-10 through Tuesday.

"Like everybody else we need to improve on some things, but we’re certainly playing well right now," O’Sullivan said.

Mike DiRocco | email

ESPN Jacksonville Jaguars reporter

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