2009 NCAA Regional Preview: Gainesville

One would presume that a team making its record 37th straight NCAA Regional appearance and that was once ranked No. 2 in the country this season would be the favorite in its regional.

That’s not the case in this year’s NCAA Tournament for Miami (Fla.), which will need to get past Jacksonville, Bethune-Cookman and the eighth-overall seed and favorite Florida to take the Gainesville Region to advance to the Super Regionals.

When Florida (39-20) hosts a regional at McKethan Stadium, the Gators have been a tough team to beat. The last time they hosted was in 2005 – which marked one of the four times they’ve advanced as the host team. They are 22-7 all-time at home in the NCAAs.

Seeded No. 2 in the Gainesville Region is Miami (36-20), which is currently ranked 17th in the polls. Florida can’t love to see the Hurricanes in the region, especially after Miami swept Florida in a three-game series – in Gainesville – from Feb. 27-March 1. The Hurricanes outscored the Gators 26-8 in that series, but that was over 50 games ago.

“I know some people think our [regional] is tougher than others but I feel like they are all tough at this point in the year,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said in a media session on Thursday.

Both Miami and Florida are used to this. Miami’s strength-of-schedule ranked third in the country, while Florida’s ranked fourth. While a meeting between these teams is expected to decide the regional, O’Sullivan has pleaded with his team to focus on the Wildcats – at least for now – instead of the Gators.

“To be honest with you, our focus is not on Miami right now, our focus is on Bethune-Cookman,” he said. “I knew that going in, once I saw the brackets, everyone was going to focus in on the Miami game potentially Saturday. I’ve made a huge point this week that we’re not worried about Miami at this point.”

Jacksonville (36-20) enters the region as the third seed, while Bethune Cookman (32-26), the MEAC Tournament Champions, in the No. 4. Bad news for the Wildcats? They are 0-22 all-time vs. the Gators and will face them on Friday.

Here’s a closer look at each team…

1. Florida (39-20)

O’Sullivan desperately wants his team to turn all attention on Bethune-Cookman, rather than a possible matchup with Miami on Saturday. One player he won’t have to worry about is first baseman Preston Tucker, a freshman sensation who doesn’t know any better. He just goes out there and plays.

That’s what O’Sullivan wants from his Gators, a team that – much like Miami – has proved it can beat any team in the country. They beat No. 2 LSU, took two from Florida State and Mississippi and had three-game sweeps over Georgia, Louisville and Alabama. Florida may not like seeing Miami in the Regional, but that appears better than drawing Alabama, a team its lost to in all five meetings this season.

Speaking of Miami, Florida isn’t at all concerned about the three-game sweep the Gators handed to them. That was three months ago. Two of those games were close and Tucker went 2-for-8 with no RBI in that series. He’s a different player now and the Gators are a different team.

And that’s a team with an exceptionally deep lineup, featuring seven regulars batting above .300. Virtually everyone in the order is a power threat, highlighted by Tucker’s .338 AVG, 12 HR and 77 RBI monstrous freshman campaign. Six others hitters have at least five home runs. With an abundance of speed, power and contact in the order, there is no easy out in the lineup for opposing pitchers.

The Florida pitching staff may not be as deep, but it’s strong – featuring a formidable bullpen (led by closer Billy Bullock’s 11 saves) and a starting rotation with ERA’s all under 4.60.

Florida stats

2. Miami (36-20)

The Hurricanes have a great opportunity to advance. They’ve already proved that they can beat the Gators, and other top teams with wins over Virginia (twice), Georgia Tech (twice), Florida State (twice) and Clemson.

They feature one of the best closers in the country in Kyle Bellamy (3-1, 1.04 ERA, 16 SV, 60 K in 43.1 IP) and feature three big bats in Yasmani Grandal (16 HR mark the most in Region) Chris Herrmann (.343 AVG, 8 HR, .466 OBP %) and Jason Hagerty (.309 AVG, 11 HR, 52 RBI).

But they’ll need their offense, which hits collectively at .295, to stay hot to try for a fifth national championship and aid a starting rotation of Travis Miller, Chris Hernandez, David Gutierrez and Iden Nazario that has a combined 5.37 ERA.

The last time Miami played in a Gainesville Regional (2002), they took two out of three from Florida and advanced to the Super Regionals.

Another interesting note: Miami dropped two-of-three at home against Bethune-Cookman in early May.

Miami (FL) stats

3. Jacksonville (36-20)

The Dolphins enter with an identical record as the Hurricanes, but not with the same amount of cache. They did capture the Atlantic Sun Championship and are making their 13th trip to the NCAA Tournament.

They come in with some momentum, needing multiple comeback victories to capture the A-Sun title and automatic berth into the NCAAs.

Jacksonville right-hander Carson Andrew (6-3, 3.99 ERA) will face Miami freshman Travis Miller (4.88 ERA in 31.1 IP) on the mound Friday. It will only mark Miller’s third start of the season.

The Dolphins are no push-over. This is their third appearance in the Regionals in the last four years, but their strength of schedule doesn’t come close to Miami’s or Florida’s. Jacksonville’s lone game against a Top 25 team was a 9-4 win against then- No. 6 Florida State on March 3.

And they aren’t exactly hot right now, with a 7-7 record over their last 14 games. With a lineup hitting at .302 as a team, they’ll try to hit their way into the Super Regionals. They have three guys in the order (Jeremy Gillan, Thomas Myers and Alex Martinez) that have 11 or more homers to go along with a .300+ batting average.

But their defense (106 errors) and pitching staff (5.16 ERA) has been a problem all season long. The starting rotation has been solid, but the bullpen has had struggles maintaining leads.

Jacksonville stats

4. Bethune-Cookman (32-26)

The MEAC Champions may not have the record that will scare the other three teams in this regional, but they went 16-2 in the MEAC for a reason.

Seven players hit over .300 for the season, including C.J. Lauriello who hit .407 and struck out just 14 times in 172 at-bats. One of the guys who didn’t hit .300 (Ryan Durrence .297) led the team with 10 home runs, 44 RBI and a .607 slugging percentage.

That didn’t come against the strongest competition. Neither did the strong pitching performances from Ali Simpson and Hiram Burgos this season, but there’s no doubting their abilities.

They combined to strike out 167 hitters in 145.2 innings to go along with a 3.21 ERA. They’ll need to be at their best against the strong lineups boasted by Miami and Florida.

The Wildcats went 16-24 in non-league games this season and finished 12-12 overall on the road and 2-5 at neutral sites.

Bethune-Cookman had mixed results this season against the teams in this region. It lost to Jacksonville all three times, fell to Florida in the only meeting, but took two-of-three from Miami (on the road, no less) from May 8-10. Burgos and Simpson were exceptional in their respective starts (both wins) against the Hurricanes.

Fun Fact: The first game this season for the Wildcats was a 6-13 loss to San Diego State. Stephen Strasburg pitched in that game, allowing one run (unearned) to go along with 11 strikeouts in 5.2 innings.

Bethune-Cookman stats

GAINESVILLE REGIONAL
May 29-June 1 | Gainesville, Fla.
Friday
Game 1: 3 Jacksonville (36-20) vs. 2 Miami (Fla.) (36-20), 1 p.m.
Game 2: 4 Bethune-Cookman (32-26) vs. 1 Florida (39-20)*, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday
Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday
Game 5: Game 4 loser vs. Game 3 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 6:30 p.m.
Monday
Game 7: Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser (if first loss), 6:30 p.m.

Eli Rosenswaike recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he served as the Sports Editor of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the largest daily student newspaper in New England. He worked there for three years covering men’s basketball, men’s lacrosse, football and baseball. He also contributed to the Boston Herald, Boston Globe, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Berkshire Eagle and Inside Lacrosse. You can find his work from the Collegian HERE.