Five questions Gators need to answer to get back to Omaha


Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan talks with pitcher Brian Johnson (35) and catcher Mike Zunino in a game against Ole Miss at McKethan Stadium on April 30, 2011.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, February 17, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 9:02 p.m.

Sure, Florida is loaded, The Gators are the nation's preseason No. 1 team and return their starting rotation and most of their position players. But there are still plenty of questions with any team playing at a high level. These are the five biggest:

Facts

Numbers you should know

0: The number of errors made by outfielder Tyler Thompson in 89 chances last season.
1: The number of games Florida lost last year when leading after the seventh inning.
7: The number of RBIs Preston Tucker needs to break Brad Wilkerson's 14-year-old record for career RBIs.
8: The number of home runs catcher Mike Zunino hit in SEC games in 2011, the most on the team.
13: The number of times Florida scored 10 or more runs in a game last year.
28: The number of games Florida plays against teams ranked in Baseball America's preseason top 25 this year.
65: The number of runs Florida scored in the seventh inning last year.
97: The number of strikeouts for Karsten Whitson as a freshman last year, the most on the team.

1. Florida was hit hard in its bullpen, so can they find a way to solidify that area?

The Gators will be looking for both midweek starters and middle relief early in the schedule. They have closers in Steven Rodriguez, who had a 1.91 ERA and was brilliant in Omaha, and Austin Maddox, who had an ERA of 0.67 last year. Rodriguez has added a cutter to his repertoire, making him even more effective. Greg Larson is a likely candidate for middle of the week starts as is sophomore Johnathon Crawford. Florida will also count on a freshman class of pitchers led by Johnny Magliozzi to eat up some innings.

“The interesting thing is going to be whether we can use those midweek starters to bridge the gap from the starters to the closers,” said Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan. “Can we score enough runs in the midweek games to get those guys out of there and have them ready, especially for Saturdays? Can they come back and be effective?”

2. Can Florida generate some power from players other than Preston Tucker and Mike Zunino?

Last year, those two accounted for 34 of Florida's 69 homers.

“We've got some guys who can hit 5-to-10 homers,” O'Sullivan said. “Brian Johnson, Daniel Pigott, Tyler Thompson can all do that. We need them to supply some power.”

Johnson could be ready for a big year after gaining 12 pounds during the offseason.

“It's what we were looking to do,” Johnson said. “I've been hitting the ball a lot harder. I just have to keep being selective.”

3. Who will play second base?

For four years, O'Sullivan was able to pencil Josh Adams into the lineup. He's gone now, and it's a position that is crucial to this team not only at the plate but defensively.

O'Sullivan said he plans to play both freshman Casey Turgeon and sophomore Cody Dent at second. Dent played third last year and will also share some time there with freshman Josh Tobias. Dent came on late in the year with his bat as well as his glove.

4. Can the Gators generate some stolen bases?

A year ago, Florida wasn't much of a running team with only 56 steals in 72 games.

“We have to be able to get the running game going this year,” O'Sullivan said. “The younger kids are going to get a hard look from us.”

Florida's freshman class should be able to provide a spark in that area with Justin Shafer, Turgeon and Tobias.

5. Is junior-itis going to be an issue?

The Gators are loaded with players who will be high picks in the next Major League Baseball amateur draft in June. In other words, they are playing in their contract years.

It can be a distraction, but O'Sullivan doesn't think it will be.

“With the guys we have, I see them being able to handle it,” he said. “I trust them. They're all baseball players. They are so competitive, they just want to win.”

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