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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Gator Baseball Preview: Infield

Multiple returning players as well as new-arrival Deric Fabian will look to avenge last season’s fielding woes.

<p>Kendrick Calilao against Jacksonville University on March 14, 2021. Calilao was the only Gator infielder last seaon with a 1.000 fielding percentage. </p>

Kendrick Calilao against Jacksonville University on March 14, 2021. Calilao was the only Gator infielder last seaon with a 1.000 fielding percentage.

If you had to pick one stat to define Florida’s 2021 baseball season, a very strong argument could be made for errors. Anywhere losses could be found, errors were surely nearby.

The final two Gainesville regional losses to South Alabama and USF: four combined errors.

The season-opening series loss to Miami: six errors in three games.

Florida concluded the season with 70 errors, its highest mark since 2011. While the entire roster is hungry to set the record straight after an abysmal fielding campaign last season, no group is hungrier than the infielders.

Featuring a mix of seasoned veterans and new additions, the unit should have the pieces in place to bounce back in 2022. With the season on the horizon next month, how the infield fares could be make-or-break for the team as a whole.

The Gators return one of their most consistent fielders at first base, junior Kendrick Calilao. The Kissimmee-born player made headlines last season when he came up to bat in the bottom of the 10th against Florida State. 

With the game deadlocked at two, Calilao blasted a shot onto the left-field berm, a walk-off home run against the in-state rival Seminoles. In a season full of unfulfilled expectations and out-right disappointment, the walk-off from Calilao was a rare, warm memory from the inaugural campaign at Florida Ballpark.

Fans remember Calilao for that shot, but what they may not remember was how cleanly he performed at first base. The Gators fielding woes were no secret last season, leading the SEC in errors, but Calilao was the exception. 

His fielding percentage of 1.000 was the only perfect stat line of any starting infielder. As the Gators look to fix their mental mistakes and start fresh this season, Calilao’s job at first-base should be locked up. 

Another name to watch at the first-base position would be junior Kris Armstrong. While he started at the designated hitter position for most of the end of the season, the Jupiter, Florida, native could also split time with Calilao.

Starting roles around the diamond are up in the air entering the season. Sophomore Colby Halter played at both second and third in 2021. The Jacksonville, Florida, native’s batting average of .302 leads returning Gators, and he sits second in RBI’s among returners with 32. 

Another veteran from that group, sophomore Josh Rivera, started at shortstop in each of Florida’s postseason games. The Avon Park, Florida, native was named to the Preseason All-SEC Second Team at shortstop, but mistakes with the glove plagued his 2021 season. Rivera led the team in errors, tallying 13. Nevertheless, he should still remain a starter for the Gators at shortstop or second base.

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The new addition to Florida’s infield group comes with a familiar name. Freshman Deric Fabian, brother of senior Jud Fabian, was named the Florida Dairy Farmers “Mr. Baseball” in his final year at North Marion High School. Deric was ranked the 26th overall prospect in Florida by Perfect Game.

Because Deric played shortstop in high school, one of the Gators’ returning infielders will likely shift over to third base. It is unclear which Gator will do so at this time, and that role could be experimented with over the course of the season by head coach Kevin O’Sullivan.

The manager was not afraid to mix and match infield lineups last season, so everybody will likely have opportunities to show off their talents at each position.

Sophomore Mac Guscette sat behind Nathan Hickey at the catcher spot for much of last season, but took advantage of every opportunity he was given by O’Sullivan as a true freshman. By the time postseason play came around, Guscette had earned the right to start at catcher for all six postseason games. 

Although the Nokomis, Florida, native only registered 57 at bats last season, his .298 batting average ranked fifth among all players. Combine that with a fielding percentage of .988 and he most likely has the starting position locked up. Keep an eye out for freshman Rene Lastres, though, who will join the team this year touted as the No. 5 prospect in Florida by Perfect Game. 

After the fielding collapse last season, there’s only one direction to go for the Gators in the SEC rankings. With a healthy amount of talent returning, as well as a handful of stand-out freshmen joining the squad, Florida is primed for a potential bounce-back year on defense.

How high up the conference leaderboards will that bounce go? That is unclear.

The season kicks off on Feb. 18 when the Gators host the Liberty Flames in a three-game series at Florida Ballpark.

Contact Carson Cashion at ccashion@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @carsoncashion.

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Carson Cashion

Carson Cashion is a third-year sports journalism major at UF, and the sports editor at The Alligator for the 2022 summer semester. A native of Altamonte Springs, Carson spends his free time walking his dog, Baxter, and listening to good music. He is an avid Tennessee sports fan, and eagerly awaits watching one of his teams win a championship for the first time.


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