Gator baseball again starts season on top
Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 10:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 10:37 p.m.
Once again, Florida is ranked No. 1. For a second consecutive season, the Gators have a chance to prove that they belong at the top of the college baseball food chain.
3. South Carolina
2. South Carolina
4. North Carolina
2. South Carolina
4. North Carolina
And that's the hard part.
“Obviously we're going to take it game by game like we have and try to put in a good day's work every time and compete as well as we can,” UF coach Kevin O'Sullivan said Friday, the first official day of practice. “We're certainly not looking forward to the end of the year. We're looking to improve and get better.”
UF, which peeled off a school-record 53 wins on the way to a national runner-up finish in 2011, hopes to qualify for its third consecutive College World Series, a likely destination given that the Gators return seven position starters and their entire weekend rotation.
“We can't control what other people think and write about us,” O'Sullivan said. “We're more concerned about the polls at the end of the year. There's a lot of good teams out there. Our players are mature enough to handle these types of expectations. There are no guarantees in this game.”
This isn't the first time Florida has felt the burden of preseason pressure. Last year the Gators were ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, No. 2 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 3 by ESPN/USA Today. All three have put Florida in the top spot this season.
“There's no substitute for experience,” O'Sullivan said. “That's not just for players, but coaches as well. Every year you go through this profession you learn something. Certainly I pulled a lot of things out from last year. Your goal is to become a better coach year in and year out, just like the players. Hopefully we're all better prepared now. Hopefully next year we're even a year better.”
Although Florida returns the bulk of a squad that reached the CWS finals before falling to South Carolina, the Gators still have to solidify their infield and bullpen. The return of their three top starting pitchers — Hudson Randall (11-3, 2.17 ERA) Karsten Whitson (8-1, 2.40) and Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.62) — should provide enough stability early for those issues to be resolved.
Florida's talented pitching staff appears to be in good hands. Back behind the plate is Mike Zunino, the 2011 SEC Player of the Year.
“We're all focused on the same goals,” Zunino said. “We want to win the SEC again hopefully and make the College World Series. That's all I can focus on. Whatever I can do to help the team win is what I'm trying to do.”
Power will be provided by Preston Tucker, who rejected the Colorado Rockies' 16th-round offer to return for his senior season.
“To get a guy back like him that's going to go down in the record books as one of the best hitters that's played here, there's no question that there was a huge smile on my face and all the coaches,” O'Sullivan said. “To get back a guy that you can just plug in the middle of the order and solidify things, it was certainly a huge lift for us.”
Tucker, who hit .308 with 74 RBIs last spring, said he postponed pro ball to get his degree and help his teammates make another national-title run.
“I think we have a great team this year,” Tucker said. “It's hard to believe, but I think we do have a better team than last year. We have more depth in the pen and more talent in the infield and outfield. Knowing I could come back to a team that hopefully has a chance to do really well this year was a big factor.”
Florida opens the season Feb. 17 when it hosts Cal State Fullerton and begins Southeastern Conference play on March 16 against visiting Vanderbilt.