Gators make statement in opening weekend
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Near the end of his press conference following Sunday's 15-3 loss to the Gators, veteran Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall, who once had a College World Series team that featured Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek in the lineup, was asked about the Gators as the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament.
Hall had already spent several minutes talking about Florida's "balanced team" and how the Gators have "some special guys" like Mike Zunino and Preston Tucker.
While Florida entered the Gainesville Regional without a conference title or SEC Tournament title on its season résumé, Hall left town sounding convinced his Yellow Jackets, who won the ACC Tournament a week earlier, may have lost to the best team in the country.
Certainly a team deserving of the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.
"By what I saw [the committee] absolutely got it right,'' Hall said. "We threw our best pitcher at them last night, and they beat us. They thumped us [Sunday]."
The Gators capped off a 3-0 weekend with a demolition of Georgia Tech, scoring four runs in the first inning off Yellow Jackets starter Jake Davies and never letting up.
Zunino crushed a three-run homer in the second to give Florida a 7-0 lead, and the Gators piled on in the fifth by scoring a seven runs, their highest-scoring inning of the season.
How's this for a weekend of work: Sophomore right-hander Jonathon Crawford tossed a no-hitter in Friday's 4-0 win over Bethune-Cookman, Zunino sparked Saturday's emotional 6-2 win over the Yellow Jackets with a tie-breaking homer, and on Sunday every player in the Gators' starting lineup reached base at least once.
Oh, and the pitching wasn't bad either. Florida hurlers limited opponents to a .188 average in the three games while striking out 20 and walking only two in 27 innings.
"I think this weekend was a really good weekend for us in all phases of the game – pitching, defense and offense,'' Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "And I think today was a really, really good day for a lot of guys."
No player had a more productive weekend than freshman second baseman Casey Turgeon, who saved Crawford's no-hitter with a leaping catch on the final play of Friday's game. Turgeon was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player by hitting .600 (6-for-10) with a homer and five RBIs.
Crawford, Turgeon, Zunino, Tucker and shortstop Nolan Fontana all did damage during the Gators' fourth consecutive sweep of the Gainesville Regional. Under O'Sullivan, Florida is 12-0 in the tournament's opening weekend since 2009.
"It's been nice to be in the winner's bracket,'' said senior outfielder Daniel Pigott, who chipped in with two hits Sunday. "You know you are in the driver's seat and you know that you have the depth that other teams don't have."
As proof of that balance and depth that Hall noted, other Gators also made a difference. Freshman Josh Tobias played excellent defense at third. Fellow freshman, left fielder Justin Shafer, had a two-run single in the first inning Sunday. Starter Brian Johnson pitched five solid innings, giving up just three hits and one run in five innings.
Seemed like everyone had a moment the past three days, which is what O'Sullivan wants to see this time of year.
"I think this team, to be honest with you, is probably tired of hearing about how people have not thought they have played up to their potential,'' O'Sullivan said. "We're the No. 1 national seed. We're using that as motivation moving forward.
"We played the No. 1 schedule in the country. I think sometimes people forget that."
If that's the case, the Gators did their best to remind everyone of that fact over three days at McKethan Stadium.
Zunino did his part by crushing a pair of home runs. The Gators had their ups and downs during the regular season, but Zunino liked the way they responded in opening their quest for a third consecutive trip to Omaha.
"I definitely feel more comfortable [about our team],'' Zunino said. "Things are starting to go the right way. We're getting good starts, the bats are coming around, we're getting some timely hits, our pen has been great and our defense has played amazing. It's a good feeling and I hope we can just carry the momentum here on out."
The Gators made their opening pitch toward Omaha loudly. But what O'Sullivan was equally impressed with was the way they dealt with the carnage left in their wake.
Shortly after freshman Johnny Magliozzi polished off the Yellow Jackets in the ninth, the Gators huddled in the dugout.
They will take Monday easy as players like Zunino, Fontana and reliever Steven Rodriguez wait to hear where they are drafted and contemplate the future with their families on draft day.
The Gators began contemplating their immediate future Sunday night.
"They've stayed the course,'' O'Sullivan said. "If you were in our team huddle at the end of the game they're already focused about next weekend. They're not talking about getting to Omaha. They're talking about finishing this thing off."
The final hurdle on the road back to Omaha is next weekend when either North Carolina State or Vanderbilt comes to town for the NCAA Gainesville Super Regional. They will play Monday night to determine the Raleigh Regional winner.
Despite romping through the regional bracket, the Gators don't plan to let up. Not now. This is where they wanted to be all season.
"Nobody's guaranteed a spot back in Omaha," Johnson said. "You've got to work for it."