Florida baseball: 5 things to watch as the Gators open the 2022 season on Friday

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

There will be plenty to watch for when the No. 9-ranked Florida baseball team opens the regular season with a weekend series against Liberty University.

The Gators' opener is 7 p.m. on Friday and they face Liberty again at 4 p.m. on Saturday and noon on Sunday. 

From the first pitch to the starting pitchers, here are 5 things to watch this weekend. 

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The Fabian brothers

Jud Fabian’s decision to return for his fourth season with the Gators was a pleasant surprise. Fabian turned down a seven-figure deal from the Boston Red Sox, who drafted him in the second round, opting to bet on himself and improve his stock.

His return to Gainesville also means Jud will team up with his younger brother, Deric, who has an opportunity to start at third base as a freshman. Having Jud back on the roster has helped ease Deric’s transition to the collegiate level. 

“They’re really close. I think Jud’s done a really good job of helping his brother get acclimated,” 15-year UF head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I think they’ve done a lot of talking before they even got here, and certainly Deric was not given the job at third base because his last name is Fabian. He earned it, and he’s earned every right to get the opportunity to start at third base.”

Given their age difference, it’ll mark the first time the Fabians have teamed up — another incentive that factored into Jud’s return to Gainesville.

“I think Jud coming back to school, him having an opportunity to play with Deric was a big deal. They didn’t have that opportunity when Jud was a senior, because he graduated high school early,” O’Sullivan said of the brothers from Ocala. “So I think them playing together was a big thing for both of them and their families. It’s kind of a unique story, obviously.”

Celebrity first pitches

When it comes to throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, the Gators have brought out the big guns for opening weekend. 

Florida football coach Billy Napier will throw out the first pitch Friday against Liberty. Saturday’s and Sunday’s contests will see two former UF baseball legends throw out the first pitches in Kansas City Royals pitcher Brady Singer and Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino, respectively. 

“We’ve got a great lineup this weekend, with Billy throwing out the first pitch Friday and then obviously Brady Singer on Saturday and Mike Zunino on Sunday,” O’Sullivan said. “Really enjoy seeing Brady and Mike back. It should be a really fun weekend.”

The weekend starters for the Gators

Hunter Barco may be coming off an impressive season, having led the team in victories as a weekend starter, but expectations are even higher for the 6-foot-4 sophomore pitcher. The Jacksonville native figures to be the team’s Friday night pitcher when Florida takes the field against the Flames, though O’Sullivan isn’t quite ready to name Barco the Friday starter — or reveal his weekend rotation. 

“We have a pretty good idea of what the rotation’s going to look like, but I just want to get through one more practice to kind of just get one more look, and then make a final decision, but we certainly have a good idea of what it’s going to look like,” O’Sullivan said Tuesday.

“You have to make all these decisions before you play your first game, and not every decision you’re going to make is going to be right. But all you can do is make a decision based on what you’ve seen in practice, and so whoever we do throw out there for the first three games, they’re going to be guys who have earned it.”

Florida's Hunter Barco pitched through six innings for the Gators against Texas A&M as Florida beat the Aggies 8-4 on March 20, 2021, at Florida Ballpark.

Contingent behind home plate

The starting pitching rotation is far from the only decision O’Sullivan and his coaching staff have to make.

The Gators have a variety of options when it comes to catcher, and O’Sullivan expects the team will utilize the complete rotation against Liberty.

“We’re obviously going to use multiple catchers this weekend, one guy isn’t going to catch all three games,” he said. “We’ll look into matchups, but we haven’t really gotten into a rotation yet.” 

A packed Florida Ballpark?

Florida Ballpark should see increased attendance after the 2021 season was played in front of socially distanced crowds. Just how many fans will attend before SEC play commences remains to be seen. 

O’Sullivan acknowledged the Gators have yet to experience a full crowd in the one-year history of their new home.

“I think last year we got up to about 50 percent capacity, so we really don’t know. It’ll have a little bit of a different feel,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve always had good support, but obviously we haven’t had the ability to have a full-capacity crowd at this stadium, so that’ll be nice to see.”