UF baseball practice begins

Assistant coach Brad Weitzel talks with the UF baseball team during the opening practice at McKethan Stadium.

Special photo by Tim Hussin
Published: Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 2, 2009 at 12:20 a.m.

Florida’s baseball team opened its first day of practice one player lighter in its pitching rotation.

Stephen Locke was supposed to be one of only two senior pitchers for the Gators this year, but he was dismissed from the team earlier in the week after being arrested on charges of driving under the influence by Gainesville Police.

Patrick Keating, now the lone senior, said the team has left the offseason issues in the past as he and his teammates push forward toward the 2009 season.

“Other people have to step up for us,” Keating said. “We’ve got to focus on doing what we can do. We can’t worry about anyone that is gone. We are focused on moving forward.”

Without Locke, the 25th-ranked Gators have a pitching staff comprised of seven freshmen, two sophomores, six juniors and Keating. The loads of inexperience might deter some coaches, but UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan is confident his guys will get the job done.

“The young guys have responded well,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve done nothing to make me believe they won’t be able to contribute right away.

“They throw strikes, but they’re extremely talented. Having some success in the fall may have helped them with confidence. There will be ups and downs. I don’t want to put pressure on them. If you’re talented and work hard, which they have, you tend to look for some positive results.”

Talent aside, O’Sullivan said there are a few worries that surround his staff of young aces. One major worry is the mental exhaustion that can come from only getting on the field a couple times a week. Unlike regular field players, pitchers don’t have the luxury of getting back out onto the field to redeem themselves.

“It’s different as a position player because if you go 0-4, you get back in the lineup the next day,” O’Sullivan said. “As a pitcher, you have to sit for a while and it kind of settles in. Success early on will be the key for those guys.”

Besides performances on the field, leadership will be key to the success of the Gators’ younger pitchers. Keating, who became the first UF pitcher to achieve first-team All-South Region and first-team All-SEC honors since Justin Hoyman in 2004 after making a team-high 14 starts and was 8-1 with a 4.16 ERA, said he’s embracing his new role as the leader of the pitching staff. His recognition is set to increase, but so are his duties.

“It comes with a lot of responsibility as well,” he said. “You have to take the young guys and help them along the way. They just have to get game experience. I’ve got it, so it makes sense that I help them along.”

After going 34-24 (17-13 SEC) in 2008 and making it to the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 2005, the Gators are not looking to stay complacent. O’Sullivan said the ultimate goal is to make it to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.

Time will tell if UF’s young staff has what it takes to keep the Gators rolling in O’Sullivan’s second year, but the young crew is already starting to make an impression on some of the players outside of the pitching staff.

“They will be needed early,” sophomore infielder Josh Adams said.

“These freshmen have all been very open to criticism. They came in with a goal in mind to win and it’s easy to see. They bring something special to this team.”

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