2009 Florida Season Preview

FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
When Kevin O’Sullivan took over the University of Florida baseball program prior to the 2007-08 school year, the Gators were in the midst of consecutive non-winning seasons for the first time in over 30 years. Expectations for an immediate turnaround did not appear promising from preseason prognostications – UF was voted to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference by the league’s coaches. O’Sullivan and his staff, consisting of Craig Bell, Brad Weitzel and Don Norris, directed the Gators to a runner-up finish in the SEC’s Eastern Division and the team’s first NCAA Regional appearance since 2005 with a 34-24 performance.

With six position starters and six pitchers returning, not to mention the influx of talent supplied by a recruiting class ranked fifth by Baseball America, Florida appears well on its way to continuing its ascension among the nation’s top programs. O’Sullivan’s energy and passion for the game sparked a reversal of fortune in all areas on the diamond for the Orange and Blue in his debut season, evidenced by significant improvements in the team’s batting average (.304 from .290), earned run average (4.39 from 5.27) and fielding percentage (.963 from .959). Not limited to just accomplishments on the playing field, the Gators also matched a program-best with 17 Academic All-SEC recipients. As the foundation for long-lasting success continues to be developed in Gainesville, the 2009 season is being viewed with heightened anticipation by the coaches, players and fans alike.

2009 POSITION ANALYSIS

CATCHER

The Gators return a trio of players who shared the catching duties last season, senior Teddy Foster and juniors Buddy Munroe and Hampton Tignor. One positive was that opponents only recorded 48 stolen bases versus Florida in ’08, which tied for the third-fewest thefts in the league, and the group was charged with just six passed balls. In addition, talented newcomer Ben McMahan is eager for an opportunity to earn playing time as a true freshman.

Back for another go-round after earning his undergraduate degree, Foster started 13 games behind the dish and had a .264 batting average, with eight runs, eight walks and three RBI in 33 games played. He was also a perfect 4-for-4 on the basepaths and maintained a 1.000 fielding percentage. Munroe made a team-high 32 starts in his first season at UF and hit .237 overall with 17 RBI and had a .259 clip with all three of his homers in SEC action. The longest-tenured catcher for the Gators with 36 career starts and time in 60 games, Tignor drew 13 assignments last spring and batted .304 in 28 games. He delivered a go-ahead round-tripper in the series finale against Vanderbilt and later singled and scored during the four-run outburst in the eighth inning.

Arriving in Gainesville from Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando, McMahan was a first-team all-state recipient last year, when he had a .330 average with 45 RBI and seven homers. He was a 30th-round selection in the Major League Baseball Draft by the New York Yankees.

INFIELD

Returning a pair of position starters, sophomore third baseman Josh Adams and senior first baseman Brandon McArthur, O’Sullivan intends to have junior Clayton Pisani at second base and junior college transfer Mike Mooney replace two-year starter Cole Figueroa at shortstop. An added benefit for the coaching staff is that the team’s parts are interchangeable and players will be moved into different roles to seek the perfect combinations. UF turned 72 double plays last spring, the fourth-highest total in the nation, and ranked second nationally with 1.24 per game.

Named preseason All-SEC by Rivals.com, Adams completed a hat trick of Freshman All-American honors from Baseball America, Louisville Slugger and Rivals.com. The first Gator freshman to be chosen first-team All-SEC since Marc Valdes in 1991, he sported a .330 batting average with 51 RBI, 42 runs and eight homers. The Jacksonville native was also one of five players to be unanimously chosen to the league’s All-Freshman Team. He led UF in slugging percentage (.536), walks (35), doubles (17) and sacrifice hits (four), tied for second in homers (eight) and ranked second in on-base percentage (.430), total bases (112) and RBI (51). A sign of Adams’ versatility was his 57 starts at five different positions (30-2B, 18-3B, 4-LF, 4-CF, 1-RF) and he saw action at every spot in the infield.

Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, McArthur is recognized as the emotional backbone of the Gators. Coming off a career-best season in which he hit .337 and established personal bests in hits (62), RBI (44), doubles (12), triples (four) and slugging percentage (.478), he will be counted upon again to lead by example. McArthur’s history of overcoming adversity is well-documented, but he added another chapter to his legacy by batting .367 (29-for-79) over his final 20 games of the 2008 campaign while playing with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

After starting 23 games at second base, nine at first base, three at designated hitter and two in right field last season, Pisani is expected to secure the starting berth at second base. Sporting a .271 average in 47 games, he scored 34 runs, notched 28 RBI, was hit a team-high nine times and had eight doubles, five homers and two sac flies. Pisani hopes to continue the momentum from his four-RBI outing against Florida State at the NCAA Tallahassee Regional.

A two-time Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year while attending Palm Beach Community College the past two seasons, Mooney earned the NJCAA Division I Easton Defensive Player of the Year Award and Region 8/Gulf District Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2007. A Rawlings Gold Glove recipient for his stellar defensive play, the Loxahatchee, Fla., native batted .332 last season and managed a .447 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot for the Panthers.

Freshman Jerico Weitzel has the versatility to work himself into the lineup at any of the infield spots. A 27th-round selection of the Minnesota Twins, he completed an outstanding prep career at Ridgway (Pa.) High School with an eye-popping .500 clip during his senior campaign, with 35 runs, 32 RBI and 14 stolen bases. Another newcomer to watch is freshman Preston Tucker, who was an honorable mention Louisville Slugger All-American last year at Plant High School in Tampa. He earned first-team all-state in Class 5A for the second-straight year on the strength of a .468 batting average, 46 RBI and nine home runs one season after being Hillsborough County’s Triple Crown winner. A member of the UF Club Baseball team that captured the 2008 South Atlantic South Conference Championship, junior Jandy Rosabal walked on to the Orange and Blue during the fall workouts. He was named a first-team National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) All-American after hitting .614 with 32 RBI and eight homers.

OUTFIELD

Returning a pair of All-SEC starters, senior Avery Barnes in left and junior Matt den Dekker in center, as well as junior right fielder Jonathan Pigott, the outfield contingent is expected to be a strong suit of O’Sullivan’s team.

Electing to return for his senior campaign after being drafted by the Washington Nationals, Barnes paced UF’s offensive attack in a variety of categories, including batting average (.360), on-base percentage (.434), hits (81), runs (65), stolen bases (26-for-29), triples (four) and sacrifice hits (four). The second-team All-SEC recipient ranked second on the club with 23 multiple-hit games, tied for third with 29 walks and was fourth with 11 doubles. Barnes was the runner-up in the league in thefts behind All-American Pedro Alvarez, taken second overall in the MLB Draft, and his total of 26 was the highest by a Gator since 2001.

A 2009 second-team Preseason All-American from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA), den Dekker was a member of the 2008 U.S. National Team that was a perfect 24-0 and captured the gold medal at the FISU World Championships in the Czech Republic. On the strength of a .351 batting average in league play, he earned first-team All-SEC recognition after collecting All-Freshman kudos in 2007. The Ft. Lauderdale product was also named to the league’s All-Defensive Team after committing just one error in 161 overall chances, with five assists. den Dekker hit .333 overall with career highs in runs (55), RBI (48), doubles (nine), homers (eight), and triples (two), was a perfect 20-for-20 on stolen-base attempts and had a pair of 13-game hitting streaks.

Pigott started 39 games in right field and played in 46 contests in his second year at Florida. He batted .220 with 22 runs, 16 RBI, 14 walks and seven doubles and totaled a couple of outfield assists. Sophomore Riley Cooper, who collected his second national championship ring in three years as a wide receiver on the Gator football team, looks to challenge for an increased role in right field after starting 14 of the last 15 games in 2008. Rated the top prospect in the Valley League, he was 3-for-8 (.375) at the NCAA Tallahassee Regional and drove in four runs in the series at No. 12 South Carolina.

Freshmen Daniel Pigott and Tyler Thompson each looks to leave his own mark on the program. Pigott was a two-time captain and Most Valuable Player at Seabreeze (Fla.) High School and was honorable mention all-state in Class 5A last year, when he had a .386 batting average and tallied 22 RBI. Selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft, Thompson was a second-team All-American and first-team all-state in Class 6A at Jupiter (Fla.) High School after hitting .463. He is the son of former Gator and 11-year Major Leaguer Robby Thompson.

PITCHING

Enhancing his reputation for pitching development with the Gators, shown by the rapid progress of several players on last season’s roster, O’Sullivan heads into his second year at the helm with increased depth on the mound. Senior right-hander Patrick Keating, a 2008 first-team All-South Region and first-team All-SEC selection, is expected to anchor the rotation. In league play, he was 7-0 with a 3.28 earned run average and he made a team-high 14 starts overall and was 8-1 with a 4.16 ERA. Keating was second on the Orange and Blue with 52 strikeouts, threw a team-high 84.1 innings and was an unblemished 5-0 at McKethan Stadium with a 1.88 ERA. In addition, he made three appearances out of the bullpen, highlighted by a save in the series-clinching win over No. 13 Vanderbilt.

Junior Billy Bullock, who tied for third on the Gators with 11 starts and participated in 18 games last year, is slated to be used out of the bullpen this time around. The 6’6″ right-hander led the team with 63 strikeouts in 82.2 innings and was 4-5 with a 5.01 ERA. Bullock registered a 3-1 record in SEC play and started nine of the 10 conference series, giving him 33 career appearances under his belt.

Juniors Tony Davis and Clint Franklin, who occupied the top two spots on the squad in appearances in 2008, figure prominently in the Gators’ relief plans. A left-hander who saw action in 34 games, Davis is considered to be the most improved pitcher on the staff after changing his arm slot and seeing an increase in his velocity. After eight stints as a rookie, Franklin was 3-3 with a 3.23 ERA in 27 appearances spanning 39 innings. The righty also limited opponents to a .256 average with runners on bases and recorded two saves.

The trio of junior right-hander Chas Spottswood, sophomore left-hander Kevin Chapman and redshirt freshman right-hander Justin Poovey is each working his way back from an injury and should bolster the Gators’ pitching corps. Spottswood made 13 appearances as a true freshman in 2006 and had eight starts, second-highest on the squad. Meanwhile, Chapman started six games as a freshman in 2007 and made 19 appearances on his way to a 2-1 mark and a 4.23 ERA. He notched a victory over then-No. 1 Florida State in Jacksonville and threw 2.1 scoreless frames against South Carolina at the SEC Tournament. Poovey is throwing in the 90-mile per hour range already as part of his off-season program. Right-hander Tommy Toledo, who was 4-4 with a 4.40 ERA in 15 appearances and 11 starts as a freshman, will be sidelined for the campaign after shoulder surgery.

Newcomer Jeff Barfield, who earned second-team All-Mid-Florida Conference accolades while playing at Lake City Community College last season, is projected to be UF’s closer. The junior righty ranked fourth in the Florida Community College Activities Association/National Junior College Athletic Association (FCCAA/NJCAA) Region VIII with 102 strikeouts and was 10th with a 2.68 ERA.

O’Sullivan and his staff are counting upon a talented crop of freshman to contribute immediately. Left-hander Nick Maronde from Lexington Catholic (Ky.) High School was ranked No. 19 on Baseball America’s list of 2008 Top 100 High School Prospects and chosen by the Oakland Athletics in last June’s MLB Draft. A first-team all-state selection, he turned in an 8-1 mark with a 0.54 ERA and struck out 129 batters in 77 innings during his final prep season. Maronde was a member of the 2007 USA Junior National Team and had a 2-0 mark and a 0.00 ERA at the COPABE “AAA” Pan American Junior Championships.

A right-hander from Colts Neck (N.J.) High School, Anthony DeSclafani was taken by the 2004 and 2007 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox in the 22nd round of the Draft. He completed his prep career as the school’s record holder in strikeouts (303), wins (25) and lowest ERA (1.45) and was 7-1 as a senior, with 81 strikeouts and just seven walks in 58.1 innings en route to second-team All-America status. Another southpaw eager to make his mark at UF, Alex Panteliodis, achieved first-team all-state in Class 6A and was the Florida Athletic Coaches Association’s District 13 Player of the Year, as well as the Tampa Tribune’s Baseball Athlete of the Year at Alonso High School. He received the Tony Saladino Memorial Award, given to top player in Hillsborough County, when he was 9-2 in his senior season with a 2.37 ERA. An offensive threat, Panteliodis hit .382 with 16 RBI, six doubles and four homers.

Two other freshmen righties, Will Jolin and Greg Larson, are also expected to play pivotal roles on the hill for the Gators. Jolin helped Guilford (Conn.) High School to its first state championship in school history in 2007, when he was 10-1 with 86 strikeouts, 12 walks and a 1.19 ERA over 76.2 innings. Listed among the 2008 Top 100 High School Prospects by Baseball America, Larson was named to the 32-player roster for the 2007 USA Junior National Team Trials and part of a state-championship team at Lake Brantley High School last spring. Freshman southpaw Lee Reumann, an all-county selection at Wellington (Fla.) High School, is another new hurler for UF.

SCHEDULE

The Gators’ 56-game schedule features 35 games within the friendly confines of McKethan Stadium at Perry Field, where the squad compiled a 27-6 (.818) mark last year. UF has 36 games versus opponents who advanced to the NCAA Tournament, 12 of which will be against 2008 College World Series participants Florida State, Georgia, LSU and Miami (Fla.).

For the ninth-consecutive season and the 21st time in 23 years, the Gators will open their season at home, hosting a three-game series against Louisville from Fri.-Sun., Feb. 20-22. The Cardinals reached the CWS in 2007 and posted a 41-21 mark last year. Florida will be tested by the rugged 30-game SEC schedule and will also face traditional Sunshine State rivals Florida State, Miami, Bethune-Cookman, Florida Atlantic, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, North Florida, UCF, USF and Stetson.

UF hosts the Hurricanes for three games over Feb. 27-March 1 and will clash with the Seminoles in three mid-week affairs, hosting FSU on March 17, facing their archrivals on March 31 at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville and visiting Tallahassee on April 14. Other national foes who will visit McKethan Stadium include Eastern Michigan (Feb. 24-25) and Duquesne (March 6-8).

The five, three-game SEC home series pit the Gators against Tennessee (March 20-22), Alabama (March 27-29), Ole Miss (April 17-19), South Carolina (April 24-26) and Kentucky (May 14-16). Florida will open the league schedule in Fayetteville on March 13 against Arkansas and is not slated to face West rival Mississippi State during the regular season. For the fourth-straight year, the final weekend of the SEC regular season will be contested from Thursday-Saturday to provide an extra day off before the start of the league’s tourney.

Stops on the Gators’ road itinerary include trips to Arkansas (March 13-15), Vanderbilt (April 3-5), Auburn (April 10-12), defending league and Eastern Division champion Georgia (May 1-3) and reigning Western Division and SEC Tournament winner LSU (May 8-10). UF’s 2009 schedule boasts 18 games against squads that finished among the top-30 in the final version of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).

Florida will be seeking its league-best 29th appearance at the eight-team SEC Tournament at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., to be held from May 20-24. Following the SEC’s postseason event, the Gators are hoping to make their 25th NCAA Tournament appearance. Regionals will take place at 16 campus sites from May 29-June 1, followed by the best-of-three Super Regionals spread out among eight venues from June 5-8. Soon after, the eight survivors will advance to the 63rd College World Series at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., from June 13-24. UF has reached the CWS five times in school history, most recently in 2005, when it was the national runner-up.