The sickening thud that ended the Gators' 2009 season has been replaced by optimism as the Gators face USF on Opening Night. The Gators are a top-10 team hoping to get to Omaha for the first time since 2005's National Runner-up finish.
The optimism surrounding the club due to not just Florida's lofty ranking or the expectations of UF winning the SEC East. Florida returns Preston Tucker, who was a freshman All-American with 15 home runs, 85 RBI and a .364 average. Tucker will play 1B and is one of eight guys playing a new position, which could cause some heartburn. There are familiar names; Josh Adams moves from 3B to 2B, but Tyler Thompson is promoted to LF as is Daniel Pigott in RF. The only returner in his same spot is Matt den Dekker in CF. Defense is an underr ated baseball measurement, but bad defense can kill you.
Adams and den Dekker will provide maturity in the lineup but both need to get the ball in play more. They led the Gators in strikeouts (55, 49) and need to get on base. Thompson and Pigott were both under .400 OBP last season. More at-bats may change that, but aside from Tucker, Adams and den Dekker, there are questions in the lineup.
Another question will be if Tampa's Tommy Toledo will be the same stud he was before shoulder surgery forced him out of 2009. The righty gets the ball tonight against USF and it will be interesting to see how far Kevin O'Sullivan lets him go. O'Sullivan will also have to be gentle with a pitching staff that was knocked around in parts pf last season, but especially in the SEC Tournament and 0-2 outing by Southern Miss in the Super Regional. UF returns starters LH Alex Panteliodis and RH Anthony DeSclafani, who will compete for the third spot in the rotation. Panteliodis might be prefered because of being a southpaw, but his WHIP of 1.55 is too much. DeSclafani had a WHIP of 1.25. The guy in the second spot will be freshman Brian Johnson, who gets the ball Saturday against USF. Johnson had an 0.76 ERA in his senior season at Cocoa Beach HS. The wait for an everyday closer might go for a while, but sophomore LHP Nick Maronde is the leader.
Florida is a young team, which is why the Gators might be a year away from really making noise. Johnson is part of the No. 1 recruiting class and one that was not pulled to MLB, as has happened to previous UF classes. Two very important positions will likely have freshman starters; Cody Dent and Nolan Fontana will fight for SS, and Mike Zunino at catcher. 3B will be manned by JuCo player of the year, Bryson Smith. DH looks to be Tampa Bay Rays draft pick Austin Maddox, who can also play catcher.
Aside from the usual state suspects (USF, UCF, BCC), Florida does not have a challenging out-of-conference schedule. But, the Gators do go to Miami, and FSU becomes a four game series with a home-and-home and games in Tampa (March 2) and Jacksonville (March 30).