Surprisingly, coach Kevin O'Sullivan feels like his team still hasn't reached its full potential, a scary thought for opposing coaches to ponder.
As the Gators gear up for this weekend's series against last year's nemesis, the South Carolina Gamecocks, they're reminded of the last time the two programs met. It was Omaha last year, and for the national title. The Gamecocks took the series and captured back-to-back national titles. Meanwhile, UF headed home hungrier than ever to win a national title.
The Gators have been a well-oiled machine so far this season. Even without starting pitcher Karsten Whitson, who is on the shelf for at least 10 more days, and even with several freshmen such as Josh Tobias, Casey Turgeon, Taylor Gushue and Justin Shafer in the lineup, this Gators club is different, and perhaps even better, than the squad that faced the Gamecocks last June.
Knowing that, O'Sullivan realizes the history between the Gators and Gamecocks, but insists his team won't be thinking about last year's College World Series. Instead, they're completely focused on the task at hand, which is reaching their goals in 2012.
"I don't want to downplay it [playing South Carolina], but the fact of the matter is they're very very good and we got beat fair and square at the end of last season," O'Sullivan said. "We just look at this as a great series between two SEC Eastern Division rivals. That's all there is to it."
Strangely, what seemed to be an amazing series between two top-five teams just a week ago has turned into a potential turning point and an important for the wrong reasons type of series for the Gamecocks. The Gators are 3-0 in SEC play, coming off a home series sweep over Vanderbilt. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks were surprised last weekend when they got swept on the road by surging Kentucky. The Gamecocks' troubles were compounded with a home midweek loss to Wofford.
To no surprise, the Gamecocks have pitched at a high level this season. They have a solid weekend rotation with Michael Roth, Colby Holmes and Matt Price leading the way. Though, there's still a movement by some to move Price back to the bullpen. Meanwhile, Forrest Koumas, who started last season and replaced Price as closer, has a 2.13 ERA in 12 2/3 innings and has recorded three saves.
Where the Gamecocks differ most from last season is at the plate, where they're hitting just .288, with freshman Joey Pankake and seasoned veterans Evan Marzilli and Christian Walker leading the way. Where this team differs from last year's club is in terms of sheer quality in the batting order. There's a noticeable drop off from top-to-bottom in the Gamecocks' lineup.
That isn't the case with the Gators' offensive lineup. Catcher Mike Zunino leads the way with a .408 batting average and seven home runs, while outfielder Preston Tucker is hitting .329 with eight home runs. There's also Nolan Fontana (.329), Casey Turgeon (.300), Taylor Gushue (.288, 5 homers), Justin Shafer (.286) and Daniel Pigott (.288). Freshman Josh Tobias, who's hitting .255 with two home runs and 17 RBIs, is the only perceived weak link in this lineup so far this season.
"I'm not sure we're better than we were last season just yet, but what I can say is that we're playing very sound baseball and we're getting contributions from everyone in our offensive lineup," O'Sullivan said. "I think all of our guys kind of feed off each other. And when you're having success, the other players also want to have that type of success."
In addition to his position players' success at the plate, the Gators have played tremendous defense, sporting a .984 fielding percentage entering the weekend. The infield has been particularly impressive. Zunino is doing a tremendous job behind the plate, freshmen Casey Turgeon and Josh Tobias have fielding percentages of .963 and .902, respectively, and shortstop Nolan Fontana has a fantastic .976 fielding percentage.
Florida's elite defense has taken much pressure off a once-again outstanding pitching staff. Hudson Randall continues to be a consistent arm and has been terrific his last two starts, while left-hander Brian Johnson is pitching well and has been up to 92-93 this spring.
Jonathan Crawford, who replaced Whitson in the rotation, also has impressed. He has just a 4.43 ERA in 22 1/3 innings, but is displaying great stuff. The talented sophomore right-hander is showing a plus slider so far this spring, while also getting up to 96-97 with his fastball.
The bullpen also has been fabulous. The Gators have one of the nation's premier closers in Austin Maddox, while Daniel Gibson, Greg Larson and Steven Rodriguez all are throwing exceptionally well with ERA's below 3.08. As a staff, the Gators have struck out 171 batters and walked just 33.
"We've always recruited depth when it comes to our pitching staff," he said. "For the most part, we don't walk people and we play great defense. The starting pitchers really are doing a nice job, while the bullpen has depth with a good combination of different types of pitchers."
With a productive offense, good team defense and an excellent pitching staff, the Gators enter the series against the Gamecocks with virtually no flaws.
But in O'Sullivan's mind, things could always be better.
"We're playing very solid right now, but I wouldn't say we're overwhelming people. We're not out there wowing anyone," he said. "We're not beating ourselves right now and we're not letting opponents score many runs. We're just taking care of business."
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org