Florida Gators: Kevin O'Sullivan

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida catcher Mike Zunino wasn’t quite sure how to pronounce N.C. State pitcher Carlos Rodon’s last name.

Row-dun or Roe-don?

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AP Photo/Brian WesterholtFlorida is preparing to face N.C. State and ACC freshman/pitcher of the year Carlos Rodon.
Doesn’t really matter. That’s actually pretty far down on the list of things about Rodon that Zunino and the Gators have to worry about when the teams meet this weekend at McKethan Stadium for a best-of-three Super Regional -- well below Rodon’s 99-mph fastball, the other four pitches he throws for strikes, and the fact that teams are hitting less than .200 against the 6-foot-3, 234-pound lefty.

"He’s a great presence on the mound," Zunino said. "Obviously his numbers are great. He’s got a great arm so we’re going to have to come out here and battle and have good at-bats and see what happens."

Rodon -- who is scheduled to start Game 2 of the Super Regional -- is 9-0 with a 1.61 ERA and 132 strikeouts and 111.2 innings pitched this season. He was named the ACC’s Pitcher of the Year, a first-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, and a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top player.

And he’s only a freshman.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There seems to be one definite when it comes to the Florida baseball team and the NCAA tournament: Preston Tucker is going to show up.

Big time.

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Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesPreston Tucker has hit 10 postseason home runs, the most in UF history.
As good as he has been during the regular season in his career, Tucker has been even better in the postseason -- and that’s a big reason the Gators (45-18) have made back-to-back trips to the College World Series and are just two victories over N.C. State in this weekend’s Super Regional from a third in a row.

The senior outfielder has a .371 batting average in 26 NCAA tournament games and holds school postseason records for hits (40), at-bats (107), doubles (10), home runs (10) and RBIs (40).

"I think it’s focus, rising to the occasion," UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said of Tucker. "It’s good makeup. It’s just a year’s worth of work showing up at the end of the year and he’s worked extremely hard and good things usually happen to good people when they work hard.

"Hopefully he’ll do it again this weekend because we’re certainly going to need him."

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Today, and only today, Florida catcher Mike Zunino is allowing himself to finally think about the Major League Baseball draft.

Otherwise, Zunino -- who is projected to be among the top five selections -- has pretty much ignored any thoughts of where he might be selected, by which team, and whether he will sign a professional contract or return to Florida for his senior season, because he’s more focused on helping the Gators return to the College World Series.

Mike Zunino
Rob Foldy/Icon SMIFlorida catcher Mike Zunino is projected as a high pick in Monday night's MLB draft.
"Honestly, it was an afterthought this whole weekend," Zunino said after the Gators’ 15-3 victory over Georgia Tech on Sunday night sent them to this weekend’s Super Regional against either Vanderbilt or N.C. State. "We came out with one goal and that’s to try to make it to the College World Series, and I’ve got 34 other teammates that are trying to do the same goal, and I’m just trying to play for one cause. It was really an afterthought. Once the game starts you really don’t think about it."

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Zunino will be the highest drafted UF player in Monday night’s first round (7 p.m. ET), but there will be numerous Gators and signees selected in the three-day draft. Zunino (fourth), pitcher/DH Brian Johnson (28th), shortstop Nolan Fontana (44th) and reliever Steven Rodriguez (71st) are all ranked among the top 100 players in ESPN Insider Keith Law’s pre-draft rankings. Law also has two UF signees -- pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (Tampa, Fla./Jesuit) and outfielder Lewis Brinson (Tamarac, Fla./Coral Springs) -- among his top 100. McCullers is 25th and Brinson is 55th.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida Gators got mad, and that got Georgia Tech beat.

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AP Photo/Phil SandlinPreston Tucker's two-run home run against Georgia Tech in the ninth inning on Saturday was his 10th career postseason homer, the most in UF history.
The Gators scored three runs in the fourth inning -- including one on Mike Zunino’s solo home run to left center field -- after a controversial end to the third inning to beat the Yellow Jackets 6-2 in a winners’ bracket game in the Gainesville Regional on Saturday night at McKethan Stadium. The top-seeded Gators will play on Sunday evening against the winner of Sunday’s afternoon’s Georgia Tech-College of Charleston elimination game.

What sparked UF’s offense in the top of the fourth was a debate of how the third inning actually ended. Georgia Tech had runners on first and second with two out, and starting pitcher Hudson Randall appeared to strike out first baseman Jake Davies after Zunino caught a foul tip. As the Gators left the field, however, Davies argued that the ball had actually hit the ground before Zunino caught it.

The umpires gathered in front of home plate to discuss the play while the grounds crew dragged the infield and Georgia Tech took the field. After a huddle that lasted for nearly five minutes, home plate umpire Mike Morris ruled that the ball had hit the ground before Zunino caught it and sent the Yellow Jackets back to the dugout and called the Gators back onto the field.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The postseason is finally here for the Florida baseball team, and coach Kevin O’Sullivan gets the feeling the freshness of the NCAA tournament will spur the Gators into doing something they haven’t done all season: Play their best baseball.

The scary thing for the rest of the 64-team field announced on Monday is that second-ranked Florida still earned the national No. 1 seed and is the favorite to win the College World Series.

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Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMICoach Kevin O'Sullivan thinks his Gators will play up to their potential in the tournament.
"I would agree with everybody that I don’t think we’ve played our best yet, which is encouraging," O’Sullivan said. "We’re sitting here as the No. 1 national seed. It doesn’t get any better than that. I think the perception is we haven’t played our best, but it’s been pretty darn good. Now, we’re just like everybody else. I think we’ve got things we’ve got to improve on and get better at, but I feel good where we’re at."

The Gators (42-18) failed in their chance to win at least a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season title when they lost to Auburn on the final day of the season, and they failed to reach the SEC tournament title game after Vanderbilt came up with a ninth-inning rally in a semifinal game last Saturday. But their strength of schedule (No.5 according to Boyd’s World) and RPI (No. 1 according to the NCAA) earned them the No. 1 overall seed and the right to play host to a double-elimination NCAA regional that includes Bethune-Cookman (34-25), ACC tournament champion Georgia Tech 36-24 and College of Charleston (37-20).

Georgia Tech will play the College of Charleston at 1 p.m. ET Friday. UF will play Bethune-Cookman at 7 p.m. ET Friday. The winner of the regional will play the winner of the Raleigh (N.C.) regional -- which includes N.C. State, Vanderbilt, UNC Wilmington and Sacred Heart -- in a best-of-three Super Regional the following weekend.

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HOOVER, Ala. -- The University of Florida Gators saw red Friday night at the SEC baseball tournament. The third-seeded Gators jumped on the South Carolina Gamecocks from the start, putting up four runs in the first three innings on their way to a 7-2 win and a shot at a semifinal rematch against Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon.

The UF offense started the tournament strong with a 6-1 win over Auburn on Tuesday, but came to a screeching halt Thursday against the fifth-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores, losing 3-2. Coming into the postseason, UF had handled Vanderbilt in 2012, going undefeated in three matchups.

Four batters had multiple hits against South Carolina on Friday night. Catcher Mike Zunino led all hitters with three RBIs, two of which came on a laser home run over the left field fence in the top of the third inning.

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HOOVER, Ala. -- The Florida Gators couldn't overcome a lack of timely hits against the Vanderbilt Commodores on Thursday night, losing 2-1 in the third round of the SEC baseball tournament.

The Gators stranded 11 runners on base against Vanderbilt pitching, leaving opportunities on the base paths nearly every inning of the three-hour game. UF mustered just four hits, only one going for extra bases.

Vanderbilt starting pitcher Sam Selman walked away with his ninth win of the year, allowing two hits in seven innings of work. The freshman threw 120 pitches, struggling with control throughout the night. In addition to four walks, he hit two batters. But his above-average fastball and biting curveball were enough to keep the Gators off balance.

“Yeah, he was pretty good. He pitched out of trouble," said VU coach Tim Corbin. "This is something that we have seen here in the last 10 weeks. It is hard to pinpoint one guy, but our success as a team stems a lot from what he was doing.

Selman blew away the UF hitters at points, striking out seven batters. Corbin said after the game that he's been proud of the way Selman has competed throughout the season.

"He has come a long way," Corbin said. "He has a good arm. He has always been able to throw the fastball. The reason he is having success is his ability to throw breaking balls and fastballs for strikes.”

UF coach Kevin O'Sullivan said simply to give credit where it was due.

"He beat us," O'Sullivan said of Selman. "It was just one of those nights. I think you have to give all the credit to Selman. He threw the ball really well.

“He threw just enough breaking balls for strikes to keep us off. He really located his fastball [against] the right-handers. He did a really good job of that tonight.”

Redshirt freshman Preston Tucker started the game in right field, hitting third in the batting order. Despite driving in UF's only run with a sacrifice fly, he said he was disappointed with the way the team as a whole performed at the plate.

“It’s obviously frustrating when you’re not swinging the bat well," Tucker said. "Our guys couldn’t put anything together. We were getting people on base late in the inning when we couldn’t really start anything going. Then when we had runners in scoring position, we couldn’t really cash in. It was a combination of things.”

Hudson Randall started on the mound for UF but didn't have his normal control, walking two batters in the fourth inning that led to both of the Commodores runs. It was only his eighth and ninth walks of the season in more than 78 innings of work. It's just his second loss of the season.

“I was looking for a better start out of myself," Randall said. "I guess I didn’t have my best stuff. I was just competing as hard as I could out there, and they came up with a big hit when they needed it.”

Florida will face South Carolina on Friday afternoon.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan was expecting very little from right-hander Jonathan Crawford this season.

The Gators have one of the best pitching staffs in the nation with preseason All-American starters Hudson Randall, Brain Johnson and Karsten Whitson and a stocked bullpen led by Greg Larson, Steven Rodriguez and Austin Maddox. Crawford, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound sophomore who threw 3.2 innings last season, was at best going to be a mid-week starter.

Instead, he ended up being a key piece of the Gators’ weekend rotation.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It looks like Florida is finally going to have its complete pitching staff -- one which was projected to be the best in the nation -- just in time for the Gators to make their postseason run.

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Cliff Welch/Icon SMIKarsten Whitson, a freshman All-American last season, returned from a tired arm on April 3.
Fatigued arms cost the Gators two of their top three starters for varying periods of time this season, and their closer is coming off a mild bout of tendinitis, but Hudson Randall, Karsten Whitson and Austin Maddox are healthy heading into the final two weekends of Southeastern Conference play. That puts the fifth-ranked Gators at full strength for the first time since before the season began.

And that solidifies Florida (36-13, 14-10 SEC) as the favorite to win the national championship.

“We’ve put ourselves in position to where we hoped we would be,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Now we’ve got two big series left, obviously, and this week it’s a big weekend. We don’t have to watch the scoreboard. The bottom line is if we do what we’re capable of doing we’ll be right there in the hunt at the end.”

This weekend’s series against Mississippi State (30-18, 12-12), which begins today, is the just the second time Florida has had its weekend rotation of Randall, Whitson and Brian Johnson intact since the first series of the season against Cal State Fullerton. Whitson threw only 13 pitches before being pulled in his second start of the season and missed 5 weeks with what O’Sullivan said was a tired arm.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Slumps are as much a part of baseball as curveballs and home runs.

Right now the Florida baseball team is mired in one, and it’s coming at a crucial time: With the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship on the line.

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Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMICoach Kevin O'Sullivan is looking to steady his Gators, who were at the top of the college baseball rankings for much of the season.
The fifth-ranked Gators (33-12, 12-9 SEC) have struggled offensively in their last six SEC games, hitting just .220 and scoring only 17 runs -- including just two runs in their last 21 innings. It’s as poor a stretch as UF has had this season, and it’s not what coach Kevin O’Sullivan envisioned as the Gators head to sixth-ranked Kentucky (35-9, 14-7) for a three-game series Thursday through Saturday.

“It’s just been very hard for us to score runs,” O’Sullivan said after the Gators lost at McKethan Stadium to Arkansas 3-1 in 10 innings last Sunday, their fourth home loss in their last nine conference games. “Teams go through this, and we’re not immune to it. It’s a difficult time right now but we will get through it, and we’ll hopefully be better because of it.”

Florida has scored more than three runs just once in the last six SEC games and the Gators went 13 consecutive scoreless innings against the Razorbacks. UF scored its only run in a 5-1 loss Saturday in the third inning and didn’t score again until the bottom of the eighth inning in Sunday’s 3-1 loss.

“We just haven’t been able to put it together,” O'Sullivan said.

The Gators better start if they hope to repeat as SEC regular-season champions. Kentucky is tied with No. 3 South Carolina (33-11, 14-7) and No. 4 LSU (35-10, 14-7) for first place in the overall league standings and Florida trails those three teams by two games. If the Gators don’t take at least two-of-three from the Wildcats, they’ll have a hard time keeping pace or catching either of the three teams.

UF, which has gone 10-10 since a 25-3 start, has 11 regular-season games remaining, including nine SEC games (Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn).
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nolan Fontana’s new approach of less thinking has resulted in more offensive production.

Florida’s junior shortstop has been pounding the baseball in his last seven games, hitting .542 (13 for 24) and driving in seven runs, since he quit being so picky about which pitches he chose to try and hit. He’s no longer over-analyzing every at-bat and has simplified his approach to: See good pitch, hit good pitch.

Nolan Fontana
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireShortstop Nolan Fontana has been lights out at the plate for Florida lately.
"I guess sometimes I was in those modes where I’m being too patient and being too picky," Fontana said as the top-ranked Gators (29-8, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) prepared to play host to Georgia (23-15, 7-8) for a three-game series beginning Friday. "He [coach Kevin O’Sullivan] has talked to me about it, and what I’m trying to do lately is focus on seeing the ball well and hitting it."

That’s exactly what he’s doing. Fontana has had at least two hits in five of his last seven games, including a 4-for-4 performance against Tennessee on April 13. He followed up with four walks the following day against the Vols.

"Instead of the ball looking like it does, it looks a little bigger -- like a grapefruit," he said. "Sometimes even softball size.

"You just try not to think, and I feel that the more I think as a hitter the more trouble I get into instead of just seeing the ball and hitting the ball."

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida baseball team is now facing its first bit of adversity in an otherwise carefree season.

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AP Photo/Phil SandlinFlorida coach Kevin O'Sullivan, left, congratulates Tyler Thompson (18) after the Gators defeated Mississippi State to win the Gainesville Super Regional in June 2011.
Starting center fielder Tyler Thompson is out for the remainder of the season after suffering a torn ACL in his right knee during last Friday's Southeastern Conference opener against Vanderbilt. The injury will require surgery and a school spokesman said the medical staff will make a decision on the date in in several weeks.

It's the second time the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Thompson has torn the ACL in that knee. It happened in high school, and Thompson had surgery during the fall of 1998 but was able to play in 44 games in the 2009 season.

"I feel terrible," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan told reporters after Friday's game. "He worked awfully hard to put himself in a great position."

Thompson had started 14 of UF's first 18 games in center field and was hitting .319 with two home runs and nine RBI. Senior left fielder Daniel Pigott takes over the job in center field. Freshman Justin Shafer, who had started seven games in left and right field before Thompson's injury, becomes the new left fielder.

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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."

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- All Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan wanted was just one run.

Trailing 2-0 with two runners on with one out in the bottom of the third inning against rival Florida State, getting one run was the goal to stop the Seminoles' momentum. Preston Tucker gave O'Sullivan what he wanted -- plus two more. The senior right fielder hit a three-run homer over the right-field wall to spark the Gators to a 9-2 victory in front of a McKethan Stadium-record crowd of 6,005 Tuesday night.

"We were down two runs at the time," said Tucker, who is second on the team with 16 RBIs and six home runs. "We were trying to at least get one across. He left it up a little bit and I put a good swing on it."

The victory snapped a two-game losing streak to Florida State. It also was UF's 14th win in a row, which tied a school record set in 2001 and 2004.

Tucker's homer loosened up UF's offense. Nolan Fontana drove in a run in the fourth on a groundout and another in the sixth on a solo home run. Mike Zunino drove in runs in the seventh on a sacrifice fly and in the eighth on a single. Daniel Pigott also drove in a pair of runs in the eighth on a single.

While the top-ranked Gators (16-1) were rolling offensively, the sixth-ranked Seminoles (14-2) couldn't solve UF's bullpen. UF relievers Greg Larson, Steven Rodriguez, Daniel Gibson and Austin Maddox limited FSU to just two hits in 6.1 innings and at one point retired 12 consecutive batters until Sherman Johnson's one-out single in the eighth.

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A rivalry is always better when there's heartbreak involved, and there's no better example of that than the Florida-Miami baseball series.

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Bruce Thorson/US PresswireKevin O'Sullivan's Florida squad has had the upper hand over Miami in recent years.
The two teams -- which will meet in Coral Gables, Fla., for a three-game series that begins Friday -- have spent the last 27 years bouncing each other out of the postseason. For a while, the Hurricanes controlled the series, ending the Gators' playoff run eight times from 1984 to 2004. Florida, however, has sent Miami home short of the College World Series in each of the last three seasons.

No. 2 Florida (7-1) has won six games in a row against No. 8 Miami (7-0) in the postseason, outscoring the Hurricanes 51-20 in the process. The Gators beat the Canes in the Gainesville Regional in 2009 and 2011, and in a 2010 Super Regional. Florida has won 11 of its last 12 meetings with Miami dating back to an early-season series in 2009, when the Canes out-scored the Gators 26-8 in a three-game sweep in Coral Gables.

"We've had some recent success against Miami, but this is a year-to-year thing," UF coach Kevin O'Sullivan said after the Gators eliminated Miami in the 2011 postseason. "We just have played well against Miami [lately]. We've been at home for three years in a row [in the postseason], and that's a big difference. ... But by no means do we have this thing figured out."

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