After suspension, Bader finds way to bounce back


Florida's Harrison Bader dives for and makes a catch in center field in the Gators' second game of the weekend series against Georgia at McKethan Stadium on April 19. (Brad McClenny/Staff photographer)

Published: Friday, May 30, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 8:23 p.m.

He would spend time in the batting cage at night, sometimes after everyone had gone home, and take his hacks. Toward the end of his suspension, he would sneak into the clubhouse to congratulate his teammates on a big win.

Mostly, Harrison Bader just reflected.

“The hardest thing was just being away from the game, being away from your teammates,” said the Florida center fielder. “The most difficult thing was having to take a step back, just sort of look at everything from the outside and see what I was missing.”

Bader missed a lot.

And he was missed.

The sophomore served a 19-game suspension to start the season after an alcohol-related accident on his motor scooter prior to the start of the season. School policy dictated he miss one-third of the season.

And while his teammates scuffled, Bader could only cheer from the stands.

“I went to every single game,” he said. “I couldn't stay away. I was just doing everything I could to be around the guys.”

Finally, the suspension was lifted and Bader had one more difficult thing to do. He had to stand in front of the team and apologize.

“I definitely owed that to them,” he said. “It was a mistake anyone could make. I've learned from it and I've grown. It was very selfish thing on my part to do what I did.

“You don't know if the guys are going to accept it. But it was an apology they deserved.”

Bader was immediately inserted into the starting lineup March 16 against Arkansas. His presence meant more than just changing the lineup.

Florida had been playing Buddy Reed, a true freshman, in center. Bader's return allowed Reed to move to left and gave Florida one of the nation's best center fielders. If you don't believe it, you didn't see the catch he made against LSU.

It also gave Florida one of its leaders back in the dugout.

“He's a great leader,” said shortstop Richie Martin. “He's one of the more vocal guys on the team.”

And, probably most importantly, it gave a team that was struggling at the plate another quality bat in the lineup.

“I downplayed it at the time,” said Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan, “but we were playing without our best player.”

Even though O'Sullivan has made some changes in his lineup since Bader's return, getting him back solidified the game-to-game batting order. With Bader batting third, Florida became a much better offensive team.

But it didn't happen overnight.

After all, Bader hadn't seen live pitching since May. And he was stepping into the toughest conference in college baseball.

Bader had a pair of hits in his first game back, but hit only .228 in his first nine games.

Since then, he has been lights out.

Bader has hit .362 in his last 33 games and has taken over the lead in batting average for Florida at .333. He is also second on the team with 13 steals and has knocked in 24 runs.

“It took a little longer than I wanted it to," Bader said. “But I'm seeing the ball well right now.”

Never better than in the SEC tournament where Bader was 10-of-18.

“He could have been the tournament MVP,” O'Sullivan said.

Tonight, he will lead the Florida team into the Gainesville Regional with his suspension a distant memory. It doesn't make his mistake acceptable, but the way he has bounced back says a lot about Harrison Bader.

“The coaches have helped me tremendously,” Bader said. “They've never brought it out onto the field.”

Fortunately for Florida, they have him on it.

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

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