UF baseball anxious to get back on field
Published: Friday, January 31, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 31, 2014 at 12:05 a.m.
The air was cold and damp, and there were false rumors of snow in Gainesville. It didn't feel like the start of college baseball season on Thursday (more like Purdue in March) and with all that is going on — Signing Day, the Super Bowl, Chris Walker's escape from NCAA jail — maybe you're a long way from thinking about it.
But for the coaches and players on the Florida team, the 100th year of Gator baseball can't come soon enough.
“We've been anxious to get back out here,” said Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan.
It started on Friday with workouts and the season is only two weeks away. But it really started as soon as the Gators finished off last season with a regional loss that left them with a losing 2013 record.
After building unprecedented momentum at UF with three straight College World Series appearances, the 2013 season looked like a car that was going 90 mph and suddenly slammed it into reverse. There was the postseason, but it was brief, a two-and-barbecue microcosm of a season that finished under .500 and Omaha seemed so far away.
We all know the combination that created the imperfect storm. The Gators were killed in the draft coming (recruits who never showed up) and going (juniors who left a year early). A young team was further hampered by a string of crucial injuries.
And despite a nice run in the middle of the season, this team was hard to watch down the stretch. It was offensively challenged, had all the power of a used car battery and found a way to make the wrong pitches at the wrong time.
“It was not good,” said junior catcher Taylor Gushue. “But I put it behind me the second it was over.”
Gushue, one of the players who will be asked to provide junior leadership this season, talked on Thursday about the pressure last year's team felt. It was a heavy burden.
After three straight CWS appearances, the 2013 team didn't want to end Florida's streak of NCAA Tournament appearances. The Gators were on the bubble throughout the last third of the season.
And this is Florida, after all, where teams aren't supposed to be hovering around .500.
“It was all of those things,” Gushue said. “It came together like a cloud. But it's all over now.”
O'Sullivan knows that the preseason theme is going to be focused on last year when all he wants to do it talk about this year and a roster that gives him, as he said, “more options.”
But he also hopes the players who went through last year's struggles took more away from it than simply frustration.
“You learn a lot from failure,” he said. “It will be used as motivation, but I don't know if we have to continue to talk about it.”
Gator baseball fans will have to get to know the 2014 team that will be thick with freshmen or, at least, they will need to be reintroduced to the returning players they may have broken up with last year. It was that kind of season, hardly an aberration for baseball, but still difficult to live through. (Arizona, for example, went from national champs in 2012 to out of the tournament in 2013).
Two of the players who dealt with injuries last year will be important cogs for this year's team. Pitcher Karsten Whitson missed the entire season and underwent shoulder surgery. All signs are that he may be ready to return to his freshman-season form.
“I'm definitely looking forward to getting out there,” Whitson said. “Last year was tough. Tougher than I imagined. We want to get the program back where it belongs. We're not a .500 team.”
Junior third baseman Josh Tobias played last season with a bunion on his foot that required summer surgery after missing a lot of time as a freshman with a broken hand. He has bulked up, shortened his swing and is, most importantly, healthy.
“I'm blessed I'm not hurt anymore,” he said.
With the No. 1 recruiting class and a bunch of juniors and sophomores who learned on the job last year, this Florida team is loaded enough on paper to be ranked in all of the preseason polls.
But polls are more fans and media. It's the games where this team will try to prove itself.
“We've got as little chip on our shoulders,” Gushue said.
Which beats 99 years of expectations.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.