Young pitchers hold season in their hands
Published: Tuesday, January 6, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 6, 2004 at 12:18 a.m.
When Florida's baseball team hits the field today for its first practice of the season, the Gators won't be the only ones interested to find out what kind of team they have this season.
Count Baseball America's national college writer John Manuel among the curious.
Baseball America ranked Florida No. 20 in its preseason poll, which was released Monday. Manuel said the Gators' success this season will depend on how their young pitching staff develops.
"Florida has a lot of talent back in the field, but we're waiting to see what kind of pitching the Gators have," Manuel said. "Justin Hoyman figures to be one of the SEC's best starters, but the rest of the Gators' staff is unproven to say the least. The Gators did not fare well last year in the SEC (ninth place), so a preseason No. 20 ranking, with them as the No. 4 team in the SEC, is pretty fair."
Florida was 37-21-1 last year and 13-16-1 in the Southeastern Conference, but the Gators made the best of a surprising at-large invitation to the NCAA Regionals after missing the SEC Tournament.
The Gators return nearly their entire pitching staff (rarely used lefty Jamie Goldfarb and right-hander Ryan Sadowski are gone), but it is still a young, unproven group.
Hoyman, who was 8-6 with a 3.31 ERA last year, promises to be even stronger this season. But the biggest question is what improvement has been made by sophomores Bryan Ball, Christian Madson, David Bartelt and Darren O'Day after the group's up-and-down freshman season.
Florida's season opener is Feb. 7 against visiting Gardner-Webb.
Also of note in the preseason poll, former Gators coach Andy Lopez's Arizona Wildcats open at No. 16. Florida State begins the season at No. 23, its lowest ranking since 1998. The Seminoles' roster was ravished by graduation and the Major League Draft and will have 14 freshmen and four seniors this season.
Of regional interest, No. 23 Florida Atlantic earned its second straight preseason ranking after not appearing in the season's first poll before 2003. Three other SEC teams are in the top 25 - No. 2 LSU, No. 7 South Carolina, No. 12 Auburn and No. 17 Mississippi.
Defending national champion Rice tops this year's preseason poll. The Owls return junior right-handers Josh Baker, Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend - who combined for a 47-5 record in 2003.
No. 6 Stanford, which lost to the Owls in the title game last year, continues its streak as the only team ranked in every Baseball America preseason poll since 1981.
"I am excited this year to have 10 wins," Peck said Monday. "I think that our team has drastically improved. Maturity and experience have helped us a lot, and we're excited about starting the SEC season even though we know it's going to be a challenge."
Florida went 1-13 in the SEC last year, beating only Ole Miss. Coincidentally, the Gators kick off the conference season at Ole Miss on Thursday.
"I think we have convinced ourselves we can compete," Peck said. "Last year we got down and stayed down."
The SEC is a combined 16-21 against teams from the five power conferences (Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-10, ACC) in games played through games of Dec. 30. The SEC is 96-13 against everyone else.
You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by calling 374-5051 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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