Stellar rotation, big bats return for Gators

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If you have read the glowing preseason projections and are attuned to the national polls, then it might seem odd the Gators are even playing their usual 56-game regular season.

Why not just head straight to Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park for the College World Series?

Ah, if it were only that easy. While the Gators enter the 2012 season projected by many to win the school’s first national baseball title in the program’s 98-year history, they have plenty of hurdles to clear before they can think about booking hotel rooms in Omaha.

After all, this is baseball.

“Baseball is a game where a curve is an optical illusion, a screwball can be a pitch or a person, stealing is legal and you can spit anywhere you like except in the umpire’s eye or on the ball,” the late sports writer Jim Murray once penned.

The game’s boundless ability to titillate and frustrate all at once was never more palpable for Gators fans than in Game 1 of last season’s CWS championship series against South Carolina.

For most of that warm June night in Omaha, starter Hudson Randall dominated and the Gators had a 1-0 lead. And then the Gamecocks tied the game and revived their late-game magic by getting out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the bottom of the ninth. South Carolina won in extra innings and won Game 2 the next night to clinch their second consecutive national title.

The Gators returned home with that championship hunger still in their bellies.

Florida revives its quest for that first national title starting tonight at McKethan Stadium in the season opener against perennial power Cal State Fullerton.

To get you ready, here are 10 things to watch as the Gators start a journey they hope once again ends in Omaha:

Managing expectations
The Gators open the season ranked No. 1 in all four major polls for the first time in school history. While they lost some key players off last season’s 53-19 team, they return their starting rotation and the bulk of their lineup.

Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, entering his fifth season, has done a masterful job in building the program into a perennial title contender in a relatively short time. He also does a good job in the clubhouse of maintaining perspective.

While the expectations are high, he is confident the Gators are prepared mentally to not let any outside distractions disrupt the team’s ultimate goal.

“The expectations are what they are, but I’ve really got no reason to believe they won’t handle it well,” O’Sullivan said. “This isn’t the first time they’ve had expectations. They’ve been through this before, especially last year. We want to be in Omaha every year and compete for national championships.”

Start me up
The strength of this year’s club is the starting rotation, which returns Randall, sophomore right-hander Karsten Whitson and junior lefty Brian Johnson. The trio combined for a 27-7 record in 2011, led by Randall’s 11-3, 2.17 ERA campaign.

Randall offers pinpoint control, Whitson is your classic power pitcher and Johnson’s versatility as pitcher and position player (DH and 1B) makes him an integral part of the lineup.

O’Sullivan plans to use Randall on Friday nights, Whitson on Saturdays and Johnson on Sundays, moving Johnson back a day in the rotation on weekends to allow him to focus on hitting the first two games of a series.

Middle men
The Gators lost part part-time starter Alex Panteliodis and relievers Nick Maronde, Tommy Toledo and Anthony DeSclafani. All pitched significant innings a year ago and offered O’Sullivan an array of options out of the bullpen.

While they will be missed — Panteliodis made 12 starts when he wasn’t used as a long reliever — veterans Steven Rodriguez and Greg Larson return. A lefty with a nasty slider, Rodriguez was excellent in the postseason and Larson is a hard-throwing right-hander who appeared in 33 games last season.

Larson is also a candidate to pick up some midweek starts with Panteliodis no longer around.

Sophomores Keenan Kish, Daniel Gibson and Jonathon Crawford are players expected to receive more innings, and a strong stable of freshmen including Corey Stump, Aaron Rhodes, Bobby Poyner, Justin Shafer and Ryan Harris are vying for innings.

Home cooking
The Gators have turned McKethan Stadium into one of the most unfriendly stops in college baseball for visiting teams since O’Sullivan took over.

Florida is 124-26 at home under O’Sullivan and has won 29 of 34 three-game home series during his watch. That bodes well for the Gators in 2012, with several of the SEC’s top programs having to visit Gainesville.

The Gators host SEC foes Vanderbilt (March 16-18), LSU (April 5-7), Georgia (April 20-22), Arkansas (April 27-29) and Mississippi State (May 11-13) at home.

Big bats are back
The NCAA’s transition to a more pitcher-friendly composite metal bat in 2011 didn’t stop Gators catcher Mike Zunino and right fielder Preston Tucker from putting a hurting on the ball.

Zunino hit a team-high 19 home runs an drove in 67 runs, earning SEC Player of the Year honors as a sophomore. He returns along with Tucker, who opted against signing a professional contract for one more swing around the SEC with the Gators.

Tucker hit 15 homers and led the Gators with 74 RBI last season. He enters the season needing only seven RBI to pass Brad Wilkerson (214 RBI from 1996-98) as the school’s all-time leader.

Maddox watch
Junior Austin Maddox is the Gators’ projected closer after leading the club with five saves in 2011. Maddox has an above-average fastball and uses pure power to retire hitters late in games.

If Maddox struggles as the closer, Rodriguez saved two games a year ago and is expected to see his share of late-inning work.

While Maddox’s role on the mound will be important, so will his work at the plate. Maddox plays first base and DH when not pitching but saw a significant drop in production. After hitting 17 homers and driving in 72 runs as a freshman, he produced only six homers and 35 RBI last season. If he can come close to matching his freshman numbers, Maddox would give the Gators another huge threat in the middle of the order.

Who’s on second?
Josh Adams is gone. Yep, it’s true, after four seasons with Adams as the starting second baseman, O’Sullivan must find a different second baseman for the first time since he took over the program in 2008.

Freshman Casey Turgeon, a 22nd-round pick of the Mets who opted to enroll at UF, is the leading candidate to take over for Adams. Turgeon was an all-state selection at Dunedin High and offers a stready glove and gets on base regularly.

O’Sullivan said versatile veteran Cody Dent, who played a key role with some timely hits for the Gators in last year’s postseason, is also expected to play second some with Adams’ departure. Dent also plays third, a position he solidified late last season during UF’s postseason run.

SEC grinder
You could easily make an argument that the SEC East was the toughest division in college sports history a season ago. The Gators shared the regular-season crown with South Carolina and Vanderbilt and later faced both in Omaha.

The two-time defending national champion Gamecocks are expected to be strong once again, and while Vanderbilt lost some star power, Georgia is no pushover. The league’s coaches picked Georgia to finish third in the division behind the Gators and Gamecocks.

Freshman contributors
While Florida’s lineup is loaded with veteran players who have played on back-to-back CWS teams, the Gators will need help from some of the newcomers to fulfill expectations.

Turgeon is one of those players at second. Freshman catcher Taylor Gushue has opened eyes during preseason practice, as have infielder Josh Tobias and the multi-talented Shafer, who can also play the outfield and infield when not pitching.

Much like two years ago when young players such as Zunino and Maddox contributed to Florida’s first trip to the CWS in five years, the Gators can’t rely exclusively on the veterans.

Thompson’s turn
The loss of outfielder Bryson Smith opened the door for senior Tyler Thompson to take over as the everyday starter in center field.

Thompson is no stranger to playing time at Florida, having played in 138 games over the past three seasons, including 76 starts. However, injuries have often derailed his production.

Thompson is finally healthy and offers a nice blend of speed and power — he hit six homers and drove in 28 runs as a sophomore — either at the top of the bottom of the lineup.