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Tall order: Now draft eligible, A.J. Puk is poised for a big year

  • By Patrick Pinak, Sports Writer
  • 0

A.J. Puk has a bruise on his left elbow.

The spot marks where fellow teammate and roommate Ryan Larson ripped a line drive back at Puk during one scrimmage this spring.

"We call him the ‘roommate killer’ because every single time he faces one of (his) roommates, it seems like it’s a knock," Puk said. "But he definitely always has my number for some reason."

Larson is one of the rare Florida hitters that can consistently square up UF’s No. 2 starting pitcher.

Yes, Puk is slotted as the Gators’ Saturday starter behind frontline pitcher Logan Shore.

But he’s not a No. 2 talent.

In fact, the 6-foot-7 lefty hurler’s name has been tossed around in rankings as the potential No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s MLB Draft.

Puk, along with Shore and the rest of the pitching staff, is the main reason Florida is the consensus No. 1 team in every major preseason poll leading up to tonight’s season opener against Florida Gulf Coast at McKethan Stadium at 7.

And he’s embracing all the expectations.

"This year we’ve got a lot of good players back," Puk said, "and a personal goal (of mine is to) just go out there each and every day I take the mound and just give my team the best opportunity to win."

• • •

Not many teams have two potential first-round draft picks on its pitching staff.

Even fewer can say they boast the potential No. 1 overall pick as its No. 2 starter.

As far as deciding who gets the ball on Friday nights, it’s a good problem for coach Kevin O’Sullivan to have.

"If you ask me on any given year could A.J. be a No. 1? Yeah, no problem," he said. "I’d lose no sleep."

While Puk still has a full season ahead of him, the hype surrounding him is justified.

In his freshman season, he posted a 3.19 ERA and struck out more than a batter per inning.

And though his sophomore season was more akin to a rollercoaster ride, Puk finished on a high note.

Through his first nine appearances in 2015, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native’s ERA sat at an abysmal 5.87 through 38.1 innings. Then on April 12, he was arrested along with teammate Kirby Snead for trespassing on a construction site and attempting to climb a crane.

But following the arrest and a subsequent suspension from the team, Puk cemented himself as a fixture in the rotation.

In his final eight appearances, he put together an impressive 1.82 ERA while amassing 59 strikeouts in 39.2 innings. He was pivotal to Florida’s run in the College World Series, where the Gators tied for third.

Quite simply, Puk found his mojo.

"I got into a groove and just kept that rolling over from summer and into this fall and into the spring," he said.

• • •

Puk has the pure stuff that not many collegiate players have.

A mid-90s fastball that’ll turn a scout’s head and widen his eyes like a fixated owl.

A wipeout slider that can fool a hitter when he needs to pull the string.

Think Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson. Think Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale.

If you can’t tell by now, facing Puk is one tall task for a hitter.

Just ask his teammates.

"I say a little prayer before I go in (the batter’s box)," sophomore outfielder Jeremy Vasquez said. "That’s gotta be the toughest lefty I’ve faced ever."

Vasquez, a left-handed hitter, said Puk’s height and frame only add to his intimidation factor.

"He’s a 6-foot-7 lefty that throws mid-90s, and he’s got two good off-speed pitches that he can throw for strikes," he said. "You don’t know what’s coming."

Sophomore infielder Christian Hicks said he faced Puk for the first time a few weeks ago.

The lefty hitter struck out on three pitches.

"You try and take early in the count just in case he doesn’t fill up the zone, but then you find yourself 0-2 and you don’t know if a curveball or a 90-something’s coming," Hicks said. "It kind of makes it hard from there."

While it’s no secret Puk can mow down lefties like Vasquez and Hicks, he also gives righties nightmares at the plate.

Puk’s catcher last year, sophomore JJ Schwarz, has seen more of his pitches than anyone else on the team.

Yet in scrimmages, Schwarz said every at-bat versus Puk is challenging, even from the right side of the plate.

"It’s not fun," he said. "If you don’t strike out, you’re happy."

First baseman Peter Alonso, who lives with Puk off campus, also said he’s the toughest of UF’s pitchers to face.

"I’m not really a huge fan of facing A.J.," he said. "He’s got good stuff. He’s an unreal pitcher."

• • •

From his high school days in Iowa, Puk’s success has taken time to cultivate.

A highly regarded two-way player as a pitcher and first baseman, Puk was the No. 5 ranked left-hander in Perfect Game’s Class of 2013 national rankings.

He was also Perfect Game’s No. 1-ranked player in the state of Iowa.

But Puk said the competition in Iowa is not nearly as fierce as it is in the Southeastern Conference.

"The talent is good, but being up there I was able to get away with more things," he said. "Coming here I had to learn how to work, how to work hard, how to improve on everything. It’s the SEC. It’s the best college baseball in the country."

One key that factored into Puk’s decision to attend Florida was O’Sullivan and his staff’s track record with pitchers.

O’Sullivan has seen current major leaguers Anthony DeSclafani, Paco Rodriguez and Brian Johnson get drafted under his tutelage.

But he’s never coached a player quite like Puk.

"(He’s) a 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 lefty that throws 92, 96 or 97," O’Sullivan said. "Those guys get paid an awful lot of money out of high school if they’re throwing strikes."

Puk and O’Sullivan have worked over the past couple years on every aspect of Puk’s game, including his mechanics on the mound.

Specifically, the two have worked on Puk’s delivery, aiming to achieve a repeatable motion that will produce more strikes.

"Just going over my delivery every day and just finding something that’s comfortable," Puk said.

And it’s already paid dividends.

A few weeks ago, O’Sullivan watched the junior pump strikes into the zone while effectively locating his fastball and secondary pitches.

"It was the best that he’s thrown since he’s been here," O’Sullivan said. "Obviously we know he’s got a great fastball, but he’s kind of learning how to pitch."

• • •

Off the field, Puk isn’t nearly as intimidating as he is on the mound.

He’s goofy, funny and sarcastic, Schwarz said.

"We always tease each other just about anything," Schwarz said. "Like he’ll throw a bad pitch in the pen. I’ll throw it back to him and be like, ‘Up, boy.’"

But Schwarz said there’s more to Puk than his lighthearted nature and his 97-mph fastball.

"He might not want to admit it, but you can tell he really cares about everybody on the team," he said.

Even at home, where he lives with fellow juniors Shore, Alonso, Larson and Snead, Puk has assumed wake-up duties by knocking on everyone’s door for early morning workouts.

"A.J. is definitely ‘Father Time’ making sure everyone is on time," Larson said.

Shore, who has lived with Puk since both of their freshman years, said that’s how Puk has always been.

The two have looked out for each other on and off the field for the past three years. Because of this, Puk said they’ve created a relationship in which they feed off each other to become better pitchers.

"We’ve roomed since day one here," he said. "We go over other teams we’re playing all the time, the hitters, and it’s just great to go back and forth with what we see. It helps out a lot."

And now, as the season gets underway, the two will have a chance to help lead Florida back to Omaha in hopes of winning the program’s first College World Series.

But even if the Gators come up short, Puk and Shore know they have bright futures ahead of them with the draft right around the corner.

"You know, it’s kind of the white elephant in the room," Shore said. "It’s kind of the thing that everybody knows is there and knows it’s gonna come.

"But I think the more that we focus on winning a national championship and winning games day-in and day-out, I think that’ll help us all in the draft."

Contact Patrick Pinak at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Pinakk12

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