Florida is playing an excellent brand of baseball at exactly the right time. The Gators, with nothing to gain in the SEC tournament having already locked up a national seed, played extremely well in Hoover, Ala., last weekend. Among other things, the Gators played outstanding defense with middle infielders Richie Martin and Casey Turgeon leading the way, while the offense did just enough and the pitching, as usual, was excellent … Beginning with the offense, the Gators have a good one in outfielder Harrison Bader, who was productive in the SEC tournament. He’s got some pop and has a .333 average with 13 stolen bases. Meanwhile, hard-hitting Taylor Gushue is the main power producer to watch, as he has six homers, 16 doubles and 49 RBIs, while Braden Mattson (.276/1/28), Peter Alonso (.269/4/32) and Casey Turgeon (.250/4/32) all are guys who have the ability to really get the Gators going at the plate … The name of the game for this team is pitching, and a lot of it. UF has arguably the deepest staff in the country. Righthanded freshman pitcher Logan Shore is a constant in the rotation with a fastball up to 92 and good secondary stuff, while Danny Young (2.29), A.J. Puk (3.35) and Karsten Whitson (3.86) all are starting options, among other candidates. Of note, Puk was up to 93-94 with his fastball last week in Hoover, while Whitson flashed a FB up to 95 with an excellent 87-88 mph slider. UF’s bullpen is its greatest strength with Kirby Snead (1.79), Ryan Harris (3.00) and Bobby Poyner (3.44), among others, leading the way. UF also hopes to get back righthander Aaron Rhodes, who was injured last weekend.
Long Beach State played its typical tough non-conference schedule earlier this season, losing a series to Vanderbilt, but showing a glimmer of hope by taking a home series from Indiana. Little did we know at the time that LBSU would put it all together down the stretch and surge into the NCAA postseason. Long Beach State could be a force in this NCAA Regional. The Dirtbags won't overwhelm teams from an offensive standpoint with just a .261 batting average, but there are some key cogs to watch. Ultra-talented freshman shortstop Garrett Hampson is hitting .316 with a home run and 16 RBIs, while Richard Prigatano and Ino Patron each had the potential to hit to the gaps despite not having overly impressive power numbers (thanks Blair Field) … What this team has done from a pitching standpoint this spring is nothing short of miraculous. LBSU lost weekend starters Jake Stassi (for the year) and Ryan Strufing (for a couple of months) early in the season, but that allowed some rising arms to get ample innings. Andrew Rohrbach, a righthanded pitcher, rose to the occasion and tallied a 2.13 ERA in 101 1/3 innings with good overall stuff, and a FB that can get up to 93-94 mph, while fellow righty Josh Frye (1.51) and lefthanded pitcher Nick Sabo (3.08) have been solid, too, while the bullpen is filled with quality arms, such as Ty Provencher, who sits in the upper-80s with his fastball and has good secondary stuff, and Kyle Friedrichs, who has appeared in 22 games and tallied six saves in 23 1/3 innings. LBSU's arms aren't flashy, but they get the job done. That's all that matters.
North Carolina has had a rather strange campaign this spring. The Tar Heels typically are being talked about in the national seed discussion. This time, though, we were wondering if they'd make it into the field of 64 as a bubble team. UNC has talent and could be a surprise team in this NCAA Regional. UNC is only hitting .273 as a club, but had some good news during the ACC tournament. For instance, talented Michael Russell hit .571 in a limited number of at bats, athletic outfielder Skye Bolt hit .375 and Wood Myers, whom the Tar Heels missed for a few weeks because of an injury, hit .375 in the tourney. UNC needs a strong weekend from Landon Lassiter, who's athletic and has an impact bat, along with a .300 batting average, home run and 20 RBIs … From a pitching standpoint, the Tar Heels have the potential to put up some zeroes this weekend. UNC has a very solid one-two punch in the weekend rotation in righthanded pitchers Trent Thornton and Benton Moss. Thornton can get up to 94-95 with his fastball and keeps his pitches down in the zone, while Moss has a good curveball and a 3.33 ERA in 92 innings. Freshman Zac Gallen (4.43) has put up some quality innings this spring, while Reilly Hovis (2.10, six saves, 60 IP) and Trevor Kelley (3.20, 39.1 IP) are the primary bullpen arms to watch. I'm intrigued to see what UNC brings to the ballpark this weekend.
College of Charleston is receiving plenty of fanfare this week as the most heralded four-seed in the NCAA postseason. It's easy to see why. This is a very solid club who I had a chance to see earlier this season at Houston. The Cougars might have a batting average of just .261, but this team has the ability to put up runs with powerful Brandon Murray (.270/6/22), first baseman Nick Pappas (.279/4/22) and Carl Wise (.293/3/52) leading the charge. Blake Butler also is having a productive campaign, while Champ Rowland (.261/0/9) has done a solid job of replacing talented veteran Gunnar Heidt, who's still injured … I really like this C of C club from a pitching standpoint. Freshman righthanded pitcher Bailey Ober throws his fastball on a downward plane at 88-91, while his changeup is a very good pitch. Meanwhile, Taylor Clarke is another slightly above 90 mph type of pitcher with a legitimate three-pitch mix and 2.65 ERA in 91 2/3 innings, while Tyler Thornton, who has a 3.13 and good arm, is another starting pitcher to watch. Chase Henry (2.31) and Michael Hanzlik (3.53, 14 saves) provide stability on the back-end of the pitching staff.
Florida has an incredibly difficult opening game against College of Charleston, but otherwise should take care of business with Long Beach State, and potentially North Carolina suffering a stiff test in the Saturday game. In the end, Florida's outstanding pitching depth and terrific defense will preserve an NCAA Regional victory. The only concern about the Gators is their offense can get into a lull at times. That can't happen against a surprisingly tough field.