Hitting coach Brad Weitzel tossed baseballs about 45 feet from home plate to a group of Gators that included Casey Turgeon, Justin Shafer and Richie Martin. The three players played through a sub-.500 season in 2013 that had Florida and coach Kevin O’Sullivan on the fringe of missing postseason play.
They were laughing on Thursday as they practiced bunting, which made for an appropriate scene for the No. 9 Gators (24-13, 9-6 Southeastern Conference), who have turned their season around and developed a new identity.
“[O’Sullivan] said we’re finding our identity. I think he’s right about that,” Martin said. “We all know who we are, what we need to do to win. Everyone is coming together.”
It’s one thing to use cliché after cliché, but it’s another thing to back it up. Florida won five of eight road games against Kentucky, Florida State, South Carolina and Florida Gulf Coast. It finds itself in line to host a regional after ranking first in strength of schedule and RPI.
Life’s good for the Gators, who will start freshman Logan Shore (3-2, 1.67) on Friday night at 7:30 and Aaron Rhodes (3-2, 2.63) on Saturday night at 7 against Georgia (21-15, 7-7-1 SEC) to begin its eight-game home stand. Florida sits a game up on No. 11 South Carolina in the division. But the race is close — UF and last-place Missouri are separated by just three games.
“Any given weekend (the standings) can be turned upside down again. It’s tight. I kind of figured it was going to be like this,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s probably going to come down to the last series of the year.”
When it does, Florida will be prepared when it gets tight. It has 10 one-run wins, good for three more than it had last season. Rhodes emerging as a long reliever and Shore providing stability to the rotation has given the Gators much-needed versatility among its pitching staff. O’Sullivan has a trove of pitchers, right- and left-handed, who he can depend on in any situation.
UF’s 2.76 walks per nine innings rank 29th in the country. By comparison, Florida finished 2013 at 3.15. Last year, catcher Taylor Gushue struggled, but now he leads Florida in nearly every offensive category, including sacrifice flies with eight.
Execution on offense and defense has been the difference.
“It’s just confidence. We go up there knowing that we’re going to get the job done, and if we don’t then the next guy behind us is going to get it done,” Gushue said. “We really didn’t have a lot of that last year, but we’ve definitely turned it around.”
Gushue, Martin, O’Sullivan and John Sternagel all used the word “gritty” when describing this year’s squad. They aren’t wrong.
Rhodes would be a candidate for comeback player of the year if there were such an award in college baseball. He pitched 18.1 innings as a side-armer who lowered his arm slot to compensate for a season-ending elbow injury a year before. He’s already doubled that mark and is second on the team with 37.2 innings pitched and has earned a spot in the rotation.
Shore didn’t let not making the rotation on opening weekend deter him from anchoring the staff. Now he has entrenched himself as the Friday starter.
At third base, Sternagel didn’t make his first start until March 25 against Florida State. He has started 11 of the last 12 contests there. Sternagel would spend his Monday off days practicing at McKethan Stadium. As with the rest of his team, the extra work has paid off.
“I feel like we do a lot of the small things right. I noticed some schools maybe have trouble bunting, or moving a guy over and what not,” Sternagel said.
“I feel like we do and take pride in doing the small things right, because we know our defense and our pitchers are outstanding.”
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