Gators benefit from game getting defensive


Published: Friday, June 15, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 10:55 p.m.

OMAHA, Neb. — There was a time not that long ago when it didn't matter a whole lot. Errors could be wiped away with three-run homers in the bottom of the inning. Runs were hardly at a premium, and if a guy couldn't field a ground ball, you'd overlook it if he could fist homers to the opposite field.

Those were the days of gorilla ball, nuclear bats and back acne. Runs came in bunches, homers came from the end of the bat and defense was an afterthought.

But this is 2012 and it's a different college baseball where you better be able to defend or a ball through the wicket could cost you a game.

Which has fit perfectly into Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan's philosophy.

And it was on display over the last two weekends in the regionals and super regionals. Florida committed only two errors in the five games, both by left fielder Justin Shafer. And it wasn't like all of the ground balls they fielded were 18-hoppers off the bats of slow runners.

“I think I take it for granted,” O'Sullivan said.

But it's the way it is now in college baseball, where you had better have pitching and defense.

Said Florida State coach Mike Martin, “The reason we've had a little success this year is because of our defense.”

The eight teams still alive and playing in Omaha can all really pick it.

“Over the last seven weeks,” said Kent State coach Scott Stricklin, “our defense has been as good as anyone in the country. That's why we're here. I don't know if we'd be here with the tennis rackets we were using.”

For baseball purists, those were the bad old days. In the 1998 CWS, Florida scored 23 runs … and was eliminated in two games.

“It was home run derby,” said Andy Lopez, who coached Florida then and coaches Arizona tonight against Florida State.

With the new bats, there is a premium on pitching and programs have changed their approach to scholarships on pitchers. But without defense, a good pitcher is wasted.

There is no better example of that than the two-time national championship South Carolina team that Florida will face Saturday night. Throughout last year's CWS, the Gamecocks made play after play, including two big ones in the first game of the championship series that allowed them to escape in extra innings.

“Those were incredible plays,” said O'Sullivan.

Tanner knew the bats were changing and knew that his emphasis needed to change.

“But I never thought I'd see it like it is today,” he said. “When they made the change, my sister told me, ‘Well now we'll see how good you are as a coach.'

“You gotta stay close and turn the double play, and you have a chance. If you can play good defense, you might trail in a game, but it's not going to be seven or eight runs.”

Florida knew it was going to be solid on defense this year with Nolan Fontana at shortstop and Mike Zunino at catcher. But as the season progressed, the Gators defense had a major setback and then a major spike.

Tyler Thompson's injury changed everything. He was a speedy, effective center fielder. But with Thompson gone, Florida had to shift senior Daniel Pigott to center and insert Shafer, a freshman, into left field.

“Daniel has done a good job out there,” O'Sullivan said. “It was difficult for him at first because he hadn't played there. And it was rough for Justin because he was an infielder. But he's done fine for us.”

And Preston Tucker has worked his way into becoming a very good right fielder.

“He's a better athlete than people think,” O'Sullivan said.

The spike came when Josh Tobias returned at third base after suffering a broken hand.

To say Tobias has shown a steady improvement since returning would be like saying Twitter has shown a steady increase in web hits. Tobias has had an amazing postseason.

“He's like a trap out there,” said pitcher Hudson Randall.

And then there is Vickash Ramjit, who has made some spectacular plays in the field and is in the lineup at first base because of his defense.

“And Casey Turgeon might be the best defensive second baseman I've ever coached,” O'Sullivan said.

Here in Omaha where TD Ameritrade Park's dimensions are closer to a major league park than McKethan Stadium, defense will be at a premium.

But for O'Sullivan, it always is.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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