Big Panda gets call

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There are no pandas at the Omaha Zoo, which conveniently is located across the street from Rosenblatt Stadium.

But the “Big Panda” will take the mound for the Gators on Saturday night when they open the College World Series against UCLA.

Lefty Alex Panteliodis will get the call for Florida against the Bruins, who will counter with righty Trevor Bauer. It’s not a huge surprise. Panteliodis is coming off the best performance in his Florida career, striking out a career-high 12 in a 7-2 Super Regional win against Miami at McKethan Stadium. He retired the final 14 batters he faced, throwing 116 pitches for his first career complete game.

“He’s been giving us quality starts all year long,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “The thing with him is he’s pitched extremely well when we’ve gotten the lead. He hasn’t let his guard down.

“He’s accepted the responsibility of being the No. 1 guy on our pitching staff.”

Panteliodis said getting the chance to go the distance against Miami has given him some added confidence heading into his first CWS appearance.

“I wasn’t expecting (Coach O’Sullivan) to send me out there again, but he came up to me and said, hey, close it out,” Panteliodis said. “I went out there and just felt really good about myself.”

As for the nickname, Panteliodis said he grew up in Tampa always being called “AP.” That changed during his freshman season at UF.

“At practice one day, somebody came up to me and said, hey, he looks like a big panda,” Panteliodis said. “I don’t know how it happened but you know, hey, I’m fine with that. It sounds good. I’m not going to complain.”

It was a carnival-like atmosphere at Rosenblatt Stadium. Kids and parents lined the concourses for autographs sessions for all eight teams. Outside at the fan experience, booths were set up selling sausages and funnel cakes. There also a batting cage set up, which could come in handy if I decide to play in the media softball game.

In a nice touch of class, UCLA players and coaches have “JW” enscribed on their caps in honor of John Wooden. “Coach Wooden is the coach of all coaches,” UCLA coach John Savage said.

Florida took batting practice here from 11 to noon local time. Freshman slugger Austin Maddox delivered the blast of the morning, a towering homer to left that came within four rows of clearing the bleachers and hitting the scoreboard.

Asked about his first impressions of Rosenblatt, Maddox said. “Obviously, the ball travels well to left. But I usually end up hitting it the other way to right-center anyway.”

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