Florida aims to wake up bats as Vols come to town

Florida's Brian Johnson makes contact with a pitch against South Carolina at McKethan Stadium on Sunday.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, April 1, 2011 at 12:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 1, 2011 at 12:09 a.m.

Baseball can be pretty fickle sometimes.


Weekend series

Who: Tennessee (19-6, 2-4 SEC) at No. 4 Florida (21-5, 4-2)
Where: McKethan Stadium
Schedule: Today, 7 p.m. (UF- Randall, UT- Gruver); Saturday, 1 p.m. (UF- Johnson, UT- Catapano); Sunday, 1 p.m. (UF- Whitson, UT- TBA)
Gainesville-area radio: All three games on 103.7 FM

Slumps come when teams least expect it. Pitching dies and bats go quiet.

Fortunately, with such a long season, teams have time to regroup and that's what Florida's baseball team is hoping for.

Heading into tonight's weekend opener with Tennessee (19-6, 2-4 SEC), the fourth-ranked Gators (21-5, 4-2 SEC) are dealing with a middle order slump.

In the final two games of the South Carolina series, which the Gators dropped 2-1, Florida's first five hitters were a combined 2-for-32 at the plate.

Florida scored just six runs against South Carolina and recorded 16 hits, 10 of which came in game one, after scoring 32 runs off 35 hits in a two-game series with Winthrop.

In an attempt to generate something offensively, Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan moved Preston Tucker, Austin Maddox and Brian Johnson down from the three, four, and five spots to fifth, sixth and seventh against Florida State on Tuesday. He also moved freshman center fielder Kamm Washington up to second and sophomore catcher Mike Zunino, who entered hitting 7-for-12 against the Gamecocks, up to cleanup. Florida grabbed just three hits in the loss and have dropped three of four.

Tucker, who is tied for the team lead with five home runs, began the season as Florida's hottest hitter, but was hitless against the Gamecocks. Thursday, Tucker said he agreed with O'Sullivan's reshuffling of the lineup.

“Whoever is hitting needs to be in the middle of the lineup,” Tucker said.

“If you're not swinging the bat, you shouldn't be hitting. The best guys that are hitting at the time are going to be in the middle order.”

Outside of just last weekend, Florida saw two of its better hitters from a year ago fall into sophomore slumps. Both Johnson and Maddox, who were among the team leaders in slugging percentage in 2010, are last in Florida's regular lineup in the category, slugging .412 and .310, respectively. They have a combined two home runs and 21 RBIs.

The players say their only remedy is tons of repetition. Tucker said he and his teammates have spent “hours” hitting balls this week in order to get into rhythm.

For O'Sullivan, it's been frustrating to watch, but he saw some sort of slump coming.

“To think that we weren't going to struggle at some point during the season is very unrealistic,” O'Sullivan said. “Actually, it's a good thing. We need to go through this, we need to learn from it and we need to grow from it.”

While the Gators work on their offense, they'll have to be extra sharp with their defense. Florida faces a Tennessee team that loves the hit-and-run and is first in the conference with 63 stolen bases in 77 attempts (2.52 per game).

Florida righty Hudson Randall (4-0, 0.66 ERA), who starts tonight against left-hander Steven Gruver (3-2, 2.79) said he's worked on shortening his release to home because of Tennessee's constant threat to steal, but understands his first job is to get guys out at the plate.

“You don't want to pay too much attention them,” Randall said.

“You still have to go out and get the batter because they can't score without a hit, still.”

Johnson (4-1, 2.86) moves to Saturday against Rob Catapano (2-0, 3.38), and freshman Karsten Whitson (3-0, 2.40) will face a pitcher to be named Sunday.

O'Sullivan said he's not putting anymore emphasis on this series and he hasn't had “Rocky Top” blaring throughout the clubhouse to rejuvenate his team. He understands his hitters are struggling, but the confidence hasn't dissolved.

To O'Sullivan, there is too much ball left to worry about the recent struggles at the plate.

“We've got good players. We know that,” he said. “We're just going through a tough stretch. We just have to stay positive and we have to work hard and take one game at a time. These guys will come out of it. It's a matter of when, but there's no question they will.”

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