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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Gator baseball preview: Pitchers

Sophomore Hunter Barco will headline a pitching staff that will include nine freshmen

<p>Florida left-handed pitcher Hunter Barco pitches against Jacksonville on March 14, 2021.</p>

Florida left-handed pitcher Hunter Barco pitches against Jacksonville on March 14, 2021.

Sophomore Hunter Barco will encounter an abundance of new faces when he scans the Florida pitching staff this season.

Twelve pitchers that entered the 2021 season with the Gators are not returning this spring, and nine freshmen will enter their first season wearing orange and blue.

With the exception of Barco, Florida’s extreme roster turnover this offseason has shrouded the pitching staff in uncertainty.

Florida’s crop of highly touted freshmen could still vault Florida back into the national championship conversation despite the team’s lack of proven starpower. How that talent develops will likely determine how Florida fares in postseason play.

In Florida’s brief 2021 postseason appearance, manager Kevin O’Sullivan sent nine players to the mound through four games in the SEC Tournament and two at the NCAA Regional in Gainesville. Only two of those pitchers return this season: a preseason All-American selection by Perfect Game in Barco and fellow sophomore Brandon Sproat. 

Program staples like Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich, Christian Scott and Franco Aleman have departed the team and gone pro. Although last season’s pitching staff was not always elite, posting a lowly 4.38 ERA, the leadership that those veterans provided will be sorely missed this season. 

The 2022 group will include only two upperclassmen: graduate student Garrett Milchin and redshirt junior Hunter McMullen. The rest of the pitching staff consists of sophomores or younger, although some players will enter their third year at UF, including Barco and Sproat — as 2020 did not count towards their eligibility.

As O’Sullivan tries to determine his starters and makeup of the bullpen, he will be relying on the performances he’s seen in fall training, as many players will be making their collegiate debuts this season. The one player that the skipper will be able to rely on most is Barco. As the Jacksonville native enters his third season in Gainesville, he will be looking to build on a stellar breakout season.

After entering the program as the No. 14 prospect in the country according to Perfect Game, Barco made a name for himself in his first full season as a Gator. The southpaw delivered over 10 strikeouts per nine innings while leading the team in wins with ten and posting a .239 BAA.

His final start of the season was forgettable, giving up two runs on five batters to open the South Alabama finale before getting pulled, but his last full start was a season highlight. Going up against the eventual national champion Mississippi State Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament, the lefty pitched all seven innings.

Giving up only one run and four hits, Barco muffled the ‘Dogs while the bats ran up the score to an eventual 13-1 victory.

That performance against the elite offense of the 2021 Mississippi State squad, which averaged seven runs per game last season, is a hopeful sign for the season ahead. Regardless of where the rest of the K’s come from this season, O’Sullivan has his ace.

Sproat, the other pitcher returning from last year’s postseason, will likely serve as another starter for the Gators. The Pace, Florida, native made two starts in his freshman season. 

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The first came in his debut start for Florida, falling 6-1 to the Stetson Hatters. Despite the scoreline, Sproat delivered four shutout innings and only allowed one hit. He fared poorly during his second start, however, allowing three runs and five hits in 3.2 innings against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament. 

Sproat may not have the experience against top-end talent that Barco boasts, but his experience as one of the older pitchers on the team will likely earn him more starts this season. 

The rest of the lineup is largely unclear.. O’Sullivan could opt for leaning on more experience with sophomore Timmy Manning, who earned four starts last season or delve into the loaded recruiting class that the Gators will welcome.

Florida adds three top-75 pitching prospects this spring according to Perfect Game’s rankings: freshmen Jac Caglianone (No. 31), Pierce Coppola (No. 50) and Philip Abner (No. 67). Caglianone, a Tampa native from Plant High School, earned a nomination as the Gatorade Player of the Year in high school. Coppola, a Verona, New Jersey, native, threw 88 strikeouts across 42.1 innings on his way to an invitation to the Perfect Game All-American Classic. 

Abner, from Charlotte, North Carolina, was a state champion his senior year while earning a 0.70 ERA. While the trio of freshmen all showed flashes of elite talent at their respective high schools, to what degree that talent can directly translate to the college game will only be revealed in time. 

For now, the freshmen will be in the mix with the rest of the lineup competing for the open spots in the group of starters. The talent on the pitching staff is visible — six former top-100 prospects are still on the roster. The production of that accumulation of talent, much of it still youthful, at the highest level of collegiate baseball will likely determine how far these Gators can go. O’Sullivan has some big decisions to make.

Contact Carson Cashion at 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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