Feb. 14, 2012

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Zunino, Gators remain hungry to get better

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


One by one, the college baseball polls were released.


And one by one, the one to beat was the same.


Typically, the four major polls vary at the top, mixing and matching top-ranked teams separated by a Sunday starter here or a slick defense there. Florida is far from typical.


The Gators, who return the bulk of last year’s national runner-up edition, are the consensus favorite entering the 2012 college baseball season. They feature arguably the best weekend rotation in the country, a rotation that works with possibly the best catcher in the nation. Their lineup is loaded from top to bottom. They play the leather.


What’s more is that the Gators are hungry.


“It has us ready to play every day,” catcher Mike Zunino (pictured above), the CollegeBaseballInsider.com Preseason National Player of the Year, said of the preseason accolades. “We can’t take any days off. We know everybody wants to come out and beat us.


“You know you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We don’t want it any other way.”


High expectations have become normal in Gainesville since coach Kevin O’Sullivan (left) arrived from assisting at Clemson five years ago. Sullivan (176-82, .682) has guided the Gators to four straight NCAA Tournaments, including the past two College World Series.


Last year, Florida escaped SEC rival Mississippi State in the Super Regionals, ultimately to be pitted against fellow SEC power South Carolina in the championship series. The Gators, like everyone else in Omaha the past two years, couldn’t muster enough to stop the poised and near-perfect Gamecocks.


“We had a great year, we just got beat by a great team in South Carolina,” O’Sullivan said. “They played better than us those two days.”


O’Sullivan knows how special it is to visit Omaha. He also knows how difficult it is to leave with a national title.


“You can have all the talent in the world, but there are a lot of factors that play into it,” he said. “One, you’ve got to be playing your best baseball at the end of the year. Two, you’ve got to stay healthy. And three, you’ve got to have a little luck involved.”


Case in point, the Gators lost two-way star Brian Johnson for the Super Regionals and College World Series to a concussion on a line drive off his head in the Regional round. Virginia ace Danny Hultzen got sick and had to leave an Omaha showdown with South Carolina after eight strikeouts in three innings.


On paper, the Gators might not have all the talent in the world, but it’s close.

Weekend starters Hudson Randall (11-3, 2.17 ERA, 124.1 IP, 13 BB, 73 K, .227 OBA) and Karsten Whitson (8-1, 2.40 ERA, 97.1 IP, 28 BB, 92 K, .235 OBA) join Johnson (8-3, 3.62, 79.2 IP, 15 BB, 72 K, .253 OBA). Steve Rodriguez (4-2, 2 SV, 1.91 ERA, 37.2 IP, 12 BB, 44 K, .228 OBA) and Greg Larson (1-1, 2.09 ERA, 38.2 IP, 7 BB, 30 K) add quality depth in the bullpen.


In addition to Zunino (.371, 75 R, 98 H, 23 2B, 19 HR, 67 RBI, .674 SLG%), the 2011 SEC Player of the Year, Florida returns six of its top seven batters in the order: Daniel Pigott (.331, 44 R, 85 H, 21 2B, 5 HR, 40 RBI, 15-19 SB), Preston Tucker (.308, 55 R, 88 H, 23 2B, 15 HR, 74 RBI, .545 SLG%), Johnson (.307, 26 R, 59 H, 11 2B, 5 HR, 29 RBI), Nolan Fontana (.289, 57 R, 74 H, 12 2B, 5 HR, 49 RBI) and Austin Maddox (.280, 30 R, 67 H, 6 HR, 35 RBI).


But the glue is Zunino (right).


“He’s extremely important,” O’Sullivan said. “We would not be where we are at without him. He shoulders a lot of the responsibility. The level of respect that his peers have for him…He’s not the most vocal, he’s kind of got that quiet confidence.


“The pitchers really, really rely on him. He has the ability to make our pitchers better without saying a whole lot. He has a unique ability to bring out the best in all of our pitchers, and they’re all different.”


And the scary part, Zunino’s only getting better.


He’s put a focus on his receiving, footwork and flexibility behind the plate. He’s coming off a summer that saw him chosen for Team USA, but did not participate. He’s adamant that he – and the Gators – still have work to do.


“There’s no aspect that we’re perfect,” Zunino said.


Despite all the No. 1 rankings, O’Sullivan hopes his players are “smart enough, mature enough” to understand that they are 0-0 when everyone starts the season in three days. He wants his Gators to take the same approach they did last year, understanding the SEC East is like playing a Super Regional series most weekends.


Being No. 1 has its perks, and sometimes can have its pitfalls. For Florida, it’s just a preseason poll.


“We’re going to embrace the expectations,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re not going to run away from them.”


(Zunino action photo by Craig Jackson, LeftfieldLounge.com)

(head shots courtesy of UF Media Relations Office, Whitson photo by Jimmy Jones)