For all his offensive firepower early in the season, Florida second baseman Blake Reese was still learning. His latest lesson came on an unusually warm February Sunday in Coral Gables.
In the top of the ninth with his team down by a pair of runs, Gators first baseman Keenan Bell took a healthy, unchecked lead off first base. Reese represented the tying run at the plate. Two Miami relief pitchers studied him from the bullpen down the right-field line as he settled into his relaxed batting stance — elbows tucked to his sides, bat resting on his collar and a slight bend to his knees.
With the afternoon sun casting his shadow toward the mound, Reese eyed a breaking ball from Hurricanes right-hander Andrew Cabezas as it sunk below his knees. Ball one. He stayed away from a fastball to the outside. Ball two. Ahead in the count, Reese stared at a fastball as it flew over the plate, and then another. After he fouled off a pitch outside, Reese waited on Cabezas’ next delivery.
He swung hard and whiffed. He held his pose after the follow-through like a gymnast sticking a landing. He peered at the sun-baked dirt for a split second and marched back to the dugout with his eyes still fixed downward in front of him.
The strikeout — Reese’s first in the series and only his third in 29 at-bats on the season — dampened the hopes of a Florida comeback. Cabezas struck out the next two batters to strand Bell and end the ballgame 2-0 for Florida’s first loss of the season and just its third in its previous 14 matchups against the Hurricanes.
UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan noted Reese’s approach to the hitter-friendly count in his postgame comments.
“He's been so aggressive in those situations the whole year,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said in a release. “I’m sure if he gets that opportunity again with the tying run at the plate and an offensive count, he'll probably be a little more aggressive.”
The numbers from the junior prove O’Sullivan’s point for him. Starting in place of the suspended Deacon Liput, Reese has batted .364 and leads the team in RBIs (10) and extra-base hits (7). His .690 slugging percentage is second only to catcher JJ Schwarz’s .800.
Reese will look to continue his hot start when the Gators (7-1) kick off a home-and-home series with North Florida (3-4) beginning at 6 p.m. tonight in Jacksonville.
Right-handed pitcher Brad Deppermann is likely to start on the mound for the Ospreys to open the series on Tuesday. The junior from Palm Harbor, Florida, got rocked in his first appearance during UNF’s season opener. He was tagged for five runs on four hits in three innings while issuing three walks and striking out six against Radford. Against Southern Illinois a week later, he allowed one run in six innings and walked one batter.
In last season’s lone game between the two, Florida got the best of the Ospreys in a 2-1 defensive struggle at McKethan Stadium.
When the teams meet again tonight, Reese will still be getting accustomed to his role as an everyday starter. Pointing to his strikeout against Cabeza, O’Sullivan said he doesn’t necessarily believe that’s a bad thing.
"These are things you learn from,” O’Sullivan said. “You can talk about them and have inter-squads, but until you're actually in those situations… they're learning points."