Growing up quickly isn't always easy, especially in the Southeastern Conference.
That's precisely the lesson the University of Florida learned earlier this season. Just a season ago, the Gators had one of the most decorated teams in the country with guys like catcher Mike Zunino and starting pitchers Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson leading the charge. But with those guys gone to the professional ranks entering the spring, the Gators knew they'd need some young players to rise to the occasion to emulate that success.
Florida still isn't exactly where it wants to be as an overall team heading down the stretch, just 25-21 overall, 12-10 in the SEC. However, this team has improved a great deal since the beginning of the season. For instance, the Gators were 11-14 entering the home series against Ole Miss, which they won. And including that series, UF has won four of its last five series.
Though young, the Gators are playing a lot more like the team that we expected to make a quick transition back in February.
Ryan Harris has been a big-time arm out of the pen for UF. (Tim Casey photo)
"I think as a coach, we always thought we were going to turn things around at some point," head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said about the Gators' start this season. "We played a pretty difficult schedule to start the season and lost some really close games against some good teams. It was probably a combination of us not playing that great and playing against some pretty solid clubs."
As the Gators have begun to rack up more wins the past few weeks, in familiar fashion, the bullpen is leading the charge, along with some clutch starting performances. The Gators enjoyed one of the nation's elite bullpens last season with Paco Rodriguez, Greg Larson and Austin Maddox leading the charge, and haven't skipped a beat this season.
Junior left-handed pitcher Daniel Gibson and sophomore right-handers Johnny Magliozzi and Ryan Harris are having solid campaigns. Gibson has improved his command this spring and has a 2.10 ERA in 34 1/3 innings and Magliozzi has been 92-94 with his fastball with much improved breaking stuff. The righty has a 2.01 ERA and 11 saves in 44 2/3 innings. Last but certainly not least, Harris is a rising power arm to watch. Harris has a true rock-and-fire type of release and has been anywhere from 93-98 this season. He has appeared in 27 games and has a 2.60 ERA in 45 innings of work.
"Those three guys have been pretty valuable for us this season. They've held things at bay and have been very, very consistent," O'Sullivan said. "In terms of comparisons, this bullpen is very consistent and a lot like our bullpen last year. I think Magliozzi is a very good guy to have at the back-end of games, as he's a real fiery guy with a big-time arm."
From a starting pitching standpoint, the Gators have done a nice job of piecing things together. There obviously were high expectations for junior right-handed pitcher Jonathon Crawford going into the campaign. Crawford was projected to go in the first round in the upcoming MLB draft before the season, and he still may, but it's seemingly not as slam-dunk as once believed with an up and down campaign, a 4.06 ERA in 64 1/3 innings, along with 52 strikeouts and 27 walks.
Stuff-wise, Crawford has been sitting 91-95 with his fastball, and his changeup is a better pitch than it was last season. However, he's been inconsistent command-wise at times.
"I think Crawford will be fine down the stretch. His stuff isn't quite as sharp as it was early on last year, but in his defense, we really haven't given him a whole lot of run support, either," he said. "I don't think the numbers tell the whole story with Jonathon. I think he's fine."
Freshman left-handed pitcher Danny Young is an interesting arm to watch down the stretch. He was moved up in the weekend rotation last week against Tennessee when Crawford went down with an injury during pre-game drills. He twirled a gem against the Volunteers, allowing just six hits in 5 2/3 shutout frames in a 7-2 victory. Stuff-wise, Young is 87-90 from the left side with very good command of the zone.
"You know, he's a guy with three pitches. He was more of an 84-85 type of guy with his fastball in high school, but he can touch 90 now," he said. "He locates well, has a good slider, and really does a nice job with a good changeup. He's really just one of those lefties who goes out there and keeps the ball down in the strike zone."
As the Gators get ready for the stretch run in SEC play, the pitching staff is in good shape. But it'll be up to the offense to determine just how far this team goes if or when it reaches the NCAA postseason.
Young spark plug Richie Martin is finally back and healthy, and is hitting .286 with 12 RBIs, while Justin Shafer (.315/4/21), Vickash Ramjit (.311/3/23) and Taylor Gushue (.304/5/30) all are guys expected to be big impact bats down the stretch. Zack Powers, who has three homers and 22 RBIs, also has been a key contributor the past few weeks.
"The lineup truly has been better the last month of the season, as guys have settled in and we've gotten guys back from injuries," O'Sullivan said. "From an offensive standpoint, we just need to continue working on being consistent, and just getting better from an individual standpoint.
"We're definitely playing a lot better as a team right now."
Florida's postseason situation isn't a sure thing at this point, but it's looking likely with just a few weeks left of the regular season.
With growth and a maturation process comes better results.
Pitching prowess: Catching up with Stanford RHP Mark Appel
Good things are always expected out of Stanford junior right-handed pitcher Mark Appel, who could very well be the top overall pick in the upcoming MLB draft. So, when he struggled in his first start of the year at Rice, it sent a shockwave through the college baseball community, and even caught Appel's attention -- nothing was going to be given to him.
Though Appel might've struggled against the Owls, he has since been sensational almost every week, tallying National Pitcher of the Year numbers. Appel, entering this weekend's huge Pac-12 series against Arizona State, has a 1.49 ERA in 78 2/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 93, walked 14 and teams are hitting him at a .197 clip.
Staying updated with Appel's progress this spring, here's our candid conversation with the outstanding right-handed hurler:
Kendall Rogers: Overall, at this point in the season, how would you kind of assess your senior campaign thus far?
Mark Appel: I think I've been going in the right direction for sure. I think each year, I try to take a step forward in some form or fashion. As far as my own development, that's in the field, just being a better teammate in general and leading by example. I feel like i've taken another step forward overall and just hope to keep doing things right as the season progresses.
Rogers: How do you feel you've evolved as a pitcher since the time you arrived at Stanford?
Appel: I guess I've always seen myself as just a pitcher that wants to go out there and give the team as many innings as I possibly can until coach comes out there and takes the ball from me. As far as becoming more of a strikeout pitcher, that's kind of the step i've been taking over the last year. The big difference from last year to this year in terms of strikeouts is just locating my pitches. I've really been working on staying down in the strike zone, and honestly, that's something our entire pitching staff has emphasized all-season long. I've really been working hard, specifically, on throwing my fastball down in the zone, and that tends to make the changeup and slider more effective.
Stanford's Mark Appel hopes to end 2013 with a bang. (Stanford photo)
Rogers: When I saw you pitch at Rice a couple of years ago, you really emphasized needing to improve the changeup. Over the past year or so, how has that pitch developed?
Appel: As far as how it has progressed, it's a great pitch for me right now. It's something I feel very comfortable with in any count, and it has become one of those pitches, where if you can throw it with some accuracy, it allows some ground balls, and typically some very quick innings. It has really turned into a big strikeout pitch, especially against left-handed hitters.
Rogers: Going into that Rice game earlier this year, you talked a lot about wanting to throw inside more this season. How has that progressed since that trip to Houston?
Appel: When someone asks me about that game, I just now say that it's the best thing that ever happened to me this season. it fueled my fire and really got me going for the rest of the season. I kind of took that game, as I do every game, and evaluated it on my own. I just tried to be honest with myself, and I didn't think I competed very well against Rice. I thought I felt a little entitled out there, that I just expected to win because I showed up on the mound. The reality of this game is that it's one of failure, and I got humbled pretty quickly this season. In that series, and as well as in Pac-12 play, you better be ready to pitch each week, and to do so every single pitch. As for throwing inside more, I feel like my command has gotten better with that philosophy each game. It has been really effective, and it's one of those things that if you continue doing it, you gain more confidence, then it becomes like second nature. It's been a really good progression, and it was something I really would've liked to try to do more last season, but we were in so many tight games, there weren't many situations to do so. It's been great this season, though.
Rogers: You've had a great year, but as a competitive pitcher, you always have something you want to get better at. What's that one thing for you?
Appel: I think, looking at myself, like people say, I think I've had a pretty good year, but there's still a lot to learn and a lot to work on moving forward. I know I can throw my fastball inside a lot better, and in that aspect of my game, I'm not where I want to be just yet, I'm not at the peak of my game just yet. The good thing is that despite needing to work on that, I'm still having success and that's validation that I'm on the right path. Coach Rusty Filter has been great for me, and a lot of guys on our pitching staff have also been helping me out, while having my back in games.
Rogers: With Stanford sitting at 24-15 overall, 9-9 in the Pac-12, and with an iffy RPI, what are your overall thoughts on the team heading down the stretch?
Appel: It has certainly been an up and down year thus far, but I feel like it's something i'm used to in my four years here. You just kind of see that happen sometimes. It has been a weird season in the sense that we've swept some teams and then been swept by teams we shouldn't be getting swept by. For us, it's just more about being more consistent down the stretch. For us, it shouldn't be about playing to someone else's level of competition, it should be up to us to play to the level that we can. The key for us down the stretch is literally just taking things pitch by pitch and game by game. We can't think right now about, oh, if we take two of three from Arizona State and Oregon State, we'll do this and that. That just seems overwhelming. If we honestly think we're giving 100 percent the final weeks of the season, I think we'll be where we want to be.
Rogers: I always like to ask players this. From a pitching standpoint, who's a guy you grew up admiring and wanting to pitch like in the future?
Appel: You know, some guys I like to watch right now, Detroit's Justin Verlander definitely is one of those guys. His mentality out there and the way he attacks better out there is just impressive. I enjoy looking at old footage of Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens a little bit, too. I just like guys who are bulldogs out on the mound. Those guys make no excuses, they just go out there and do their best, while also being pretty good team players.
Rogers: As a native Texan and looking ahead to the draft, would it be extra special for you to be the top overall pick to the Houston Astros, or not really any different than anyone else?
Appel: You know, I think it would be a great honor. The fact that it would be the Astros, a team I grew up rooting for and dreaming of playing for someday, it would definitely be pretty special. But as I learned last year, a lot of it is out of your control and you can't let those things affect your thinking process. My family is now back in Houston, so that'd be awesome, but I'm not going to force a fantasy, and I won't be upset if the Astros don't take me. I am a person with an opportunity to play baseball for a living, whether it's in Houston or Chicago, or even Pittsburgh, or wherever. I really enjoyed my four years at Stanford, and I basically got to play baseball as a job while getting a degree from a place like Stanford. This all is an amazing blessing, and it's been a long ride. But man, it has been a fun one.
Series to watch
2 Vanderbilt at 14 South Carolina: The Commodores have been incredibly consistent this season and hit the road hoping to add yet another solid series victory. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks surprised some last weekend with a road series win over LSU. Keep an eye on talented freshman left-handed pitcher Jack Wynkoop, who was terrific last weekend against the Tigers and has a 2.66 ERA in 47 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 27, walked seven and teams are hitting .274 against him. THE PICK: Vanderbilt
Florida at 3 LSU: The Tigers are coming off a tough home series loss to South Carolina, and really need to get right-handed pitcher Ryan Eades red-hot and more consistent down the stretch. Eades was terrific last weekend against South Carolina, allowing two runs on six hits in seven innings of work. For the Gators, right-handed pitcher Jonathon Crawford must have a solid start. Crawford has a 4.06 ERA in 64 1/3 innings this season. He also has struck out 52, walked 27, and teams are hitting him at a .241 clip. THE PICK: LSU
UCF at 9 Florida State: The Knights have at least put themselves in the NCAA postseason discussion the past couple of weeks, and could really change their fortunes this weekend with a road series win over Florida State. Keep an eye on UCF starting pitchers Chris Matulis and Ben Lively. Matulis has a 3.13 ERA in 69 innings this season, while Lively is a big-time MLB draft prospect with a great numbers, 1.12 ERA in 80 innings, along with 78 strikeouts and 20 walks. THE PICK: Florida State
Stanford at 8 Arizona State: With a .500 conference record headed down the stretch, the Cardinal desperately needs a series win over Arizona State this weekend. That won't be easy, though, as the Sun Devils have been surprisingly consistent this spring. Keep an eye on ASU imposing right-handed pitcher Trevor Williams, a top prospect who has a 3.30 ERA in 79 innings. He also has struck out 55 and walked 13, while teams are hitting him at a .269 clip. THE PICK: Arizona State
Alabama at 17 Mississippi State: The Crimson Tide has been a pleasant surprise so far this season with starting pitchers Spencer Turnbull and Charley Sullivan leading the charge, but must rise to the occasion offensively this weekend with a lineup that's hitting just .245 on the season. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs need to get back to business offensively after struggling last weekend against Vanderbilt. As usual, keep an eye on State outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who's hitting .403 with 13 doubles, two triples, 14 homers and 48 RBIs. THE PICK: Mississippi State
12 Arkansas at 19 Kentucky: The Razorbacks hope to sneak into a postseason host site down the stretch with a strong finish, but Kentucky stands in the way. The Hogs have a good conference record, but still have some work to do from an RPI standpoint. Meanwhile, the Wildcats captured a huge road series win over Mississippi last weekend. However, they've made a switch in their weekend rotation with youngster Kyle Cody replacing Jerad Grundy. Cody has a 5.49 ERA in 39 1/3 innings, along with 36 strikeouts and 11 walks. THE PICK: Kentucky
Coastal Carolina at 23 Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets aren't in any concern about missing the NCAA postseason at this point, but certainly need to avoid doubt down the stretch with a series win over the Chanticleers this weekend. For the Chants, starting pitcher Ben Smith is the key to watch this weekend. Smith has a 1.64 ERA in 65 2/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 56 and walked 36, while teams are hitting him at a .254 clip. THE PICK: Georgia Tech
South Florida at Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish appeared to be in big trouble a couple of weeks ago, but have since gotten their act together. Now they stay home this weekend to face off with South Florida, which surprisingly leads the Big East heading down the stretch. USF starting pitcher Jimmy Herget is a premium arm to watch. Herget has a 1.61 ERA in 67 innings this season, along with 46 strikeouts, 18 walks and an opponents .179 batting average. THE PICK: Notre Dame
Long Beach State at 4 Cal State Fullerton: The Titans have been incredibly consistent this spring with two of the nation's better right-handed pitchers in freshmen Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza. Meanwhile, the Dirtbags might, just might, find their way into the NCAA postseason picture if they can take this weekend's series over the Dirtbags. Keep an eye on LBSU starting pitcher Shane Carle, who has a 3.44 ERA in 68 innings. He also has struck out 52 and walked 20, while teams are hitting him at a .254 clip. THE PICK: Cal State Fullerton
15 Oklahoma at West Virginia: Yeah, we're surprised, too, but the West Virginia Mountaineers are in the postseason mix heading down the final few weeks of the regular season, as we acknowledged in this Column on WVU and coach Randy Mazey. However, the Mountaineers have a tough chore this weekend against Dillon Overton and Jonathan Gray, and the rest of the OU pitching staff. For WVU, keep an eye on left-handed pitcher Harrison Musgrave, who has a 2.36 ERA in 72 1/3 innings. He also has struck out 51, walked 22 and teams are hitting him at a .211 clip. THE PICK: Oklahoma