O'Sullivan marvels at Gushue's transformation

Florida catcher Taylor Gushue is hitting .338 and his 32 RBIs are only one short of his team-leading total last season.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer/File
Published: Friday, April 18, 2014 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 17, 2014 at 6:46 p.m.

Kevin O'Sullivan was watching his catcher take batting practice one day recently before a game and it hit him.


SEC series

Who: Georgia (21-15-1, 7-7-1 SEC) at No. 9 Florida (24-13, 9-6)
When: 7:30 tonight
TV: CST (Cox Channel 1259 HD and 259 in Gainesville)
Radio: 103.7 FM
Pitching matchup: Georgia's Ryan Lawlor, So., LHP (3-2, 3.44) vs. UF's Logan Shore, Fr., RHP (3-2, 1.67)

The kid who had played as a freshman when he should have been in high school looks like a junior should look. Even more than that, he looks like a catcher should look.

Strong and muscular. Physically fit.

“He looks like a big leaguer,” O'Sullivan said.

It was a conscious effort by Taylor Gushue during the offseason after Florida's disappointing two-and-out in the NCAA tournament and sub-.500 record for the 2013 season. If Florida was going to bounce back in 2014, he couldn't fade away as the grinding season rolled into its second half.

So four or five times a week, he lifted weights at Calvary Christian Academy near his home in Boca Raton where he starred during his prep career. He sucked down protein shakes and recovery mixes.

And now, he's ready to finish as strong as he started.

“There was a lot of sweat put into it, that's for sure,” Gushue said. “The first thing I did when I went home was, I knew I had to play a little heavier, a little more muscular. I just grinded it out. My whole break was about baseball, trying to get better.

“I wanted to come back in the best shape of my life.”

And so he did. Gushue had seen how a long college baseball season can take its toll on someone who is not physically mature. Not that anyone could blame him.

After all, he skipped his senior season in high school to play for the Gators and came in with a bang. His first swing was a home run against Cal State Fullerton's Dylan Floro. But after a flurry of extra-base hits, he struggled to a .206 batting average.

As a sophomore — who should have been a freshman — Gushue became the every-day catcher, starting all 59 games. Despite leading the team with 33 RBIs, there was again a fade at the end of the season. He was 0-for-12 in the postseason and less than half of his RBIs came in SEC play.

“I wasn't the biggest guy in the world when I came in here and then somehow I leaned out during my sophomore season,” he said. “It was hard to deal with. When you're only used to success, it's hard to cope with failure.

“When you don't know how to deal with it, it kind of eats at you. When you get burned out, you get burned out. As much as it's a physical grind, it's a mental grind, too. I didn't want to let that happen again.”

Gushue showed up for this season with 15 pounds of extra muscle, up to 215 pounds and ready for the rigors of being a catcher over a long stretch of games.

And when Florida begins a three-game series with Georgia at McKethan Stadium tonight, the new Taylor Gushue appears to be ready for the stretch run.

He is hitting .338 and his 32 RBIs are only one short of his team-leading total last season. More importantly, he is hitting .390 in SEC games, where pitching has been the rule this season.

“It's a combination of age and maturity,” O'Sullivan said. “Physically, he's in the best shape of his life. He has a totally different kind of body. He's physically able to catch every game.”

In baseball, the catcher is what the quarterback is to football or the point guard is to basketball. He makes the calls and handles the pitchers and leads by both example and verbiage.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic for Gushue is that he has yet to commit an error at catcher this season. Some of that can be traced to not wearing down.

“Physical maturity is a big part of the game,” Gushue said. “You have more endurance and you don't feel tired after catching eight innings.”

Gushue's play has helped Florida get to a place where few of us saw the Gators going during the early part of the season — No. 1 in RPI and leading the SEC East. And on any baseball team, junior leadership is vital.

“It's a great feeling,” Gushue said of his leadership role. “I feel like I was born for it.”

Gushue's three-hit game against Florida Gulf Coast on Tuesday night after a long bus ride was a sign he is physically and mentally prepared for this stretch run as Florida tries to win a conference title and secure home field for a regional.

Because the kid who succeeded one of the greatest catchers in Florida history in Mike Zunino now looks a lot more like him — a big leaguer.

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

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