College : : Story
Thursday, February 20, 2014

Weekend preview: Sunshine drama

Kendall Rogers        

ALSO SEE: PG College Top 25 | Column on USC's startTravis Radke profile | Weekly national column

Miami has to cringe some when it sees the pesky Florida Gators on the schedule.

The Hurricanes are one of the nation’s perennial powers and certainly have accomplished much more, historically speaking, than the Gators. However, things have been infinitely different in the modern era, specifically the coach Kevin O’Sullivan era. The Gators have been a nemesis for the Hurricanes in the NCAA postseason, and during the regular season, capturing 13 of the last 14 contests, while also winning 16 of the last 18.

In other words, if you’re Miami, you have to feel like the tide eventually will shift your direction. But will it be this weekend when the Gators head to Coral Gables, Fla.?

Time will tell, but coach Kevin O’Sullivan, for the most part, feels good about where his Gators stand entering the weekend set.

“Maryland was certainly a solid test for us to start the season. I thought they were an NCAA Regional type of club. Overall, I was pretty pleased, but like any coach, I felt like we had some areas that could use improvements,” O’Sullivan said. “Like anything, I don’t want to make any knee-jerk reactions based on the first weekend of the season.”

Starting pitcher Bobby Poyner had a good first weekend against Maryland. (UF photo)

The biggest story of opening weekend for Florida was the return of right-handed pitcher Karsten Whitson, who hadn’t pitched since his freshman season after turning down the Padres in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft. Whitson’s debut was just OK, as he allowed three runs on four hits in two innings of work. From O’Sullivan’s point of view, it was important to look beyond the statistics line.

“I actually thought Karsten’s start was pretty good. He was back up to 93, I thought he looked healthy, and his arm was free and easy,” O’Sullivan said. “I am definitely going to put him back out there this weekend. I don’t ever want any of our guys looking over their shoulders.”

Beyond Whitson in the weekend rotation, the Gators were pleased with opening day starter Bobby Poyner, who allowed just three hits in 5 1/3 shutout frames, while freshman right-handed pitcher Brett Morales, despite a bad stat line, pitched down in the strike zone and showed a legitimate three-pitch mix.

“I was actually pleased with Morales,” he said. “It was his first start and there obviously were some jitters. He does a lot of things well and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him. The fact of the matter is that we have to have him and Whitson throw well this season to get to where we want to be.”

The good news for the Gators is even if the current starting rotation doesn’t pan out as the season progresses, it shouldn’t be a problem. UF has an embarrassment of riches in its bullpen, too.

Freshman two-way player A.J. Puk sat 92-94 opening weekend and allowed a run in three innings, lefty Danny Young threw six very good innings, Ryan Harris threw mid-90s and didn’t allow a run and Eric Hanhold is earning high praise from O’Sullivan for what he did opening weekend.

The Gators also think freshman righty Logan Shore has a chance to move into the weekend rotation at some point. Shore had a sterling performance against UCF earlier this week, and sat 88-92 with a good three-pitch mix and command.

“Logan commands his secondary pitches and has some life to his stuff. He was able to hold his velocity,” O’Sullivan said. “Puk and Hanhold also looked really good. Hanhold and Shore have a chance to be weekend starters at some point.”

Florida’s offensive lineup, outside of hard-hitting Taylor Gushue, might not be one that will completely overwhelm opposing pitching staffs this spring, but will it really matter? The Gators again have an abundance of arms, have Karsten Whitson back and head back to Miami this weekend — a place, unlike for most teams, has been very kind of O’Sullivan’s teams.

The Gators hope recent history repeats itself.

Quick takes with East Carolina’s Billy Godwin

Q: You’ve got a weekend and a midweek game under your belt. How would you assess the club going into this weekend’s series against No. 1 Virginia?

GODWIN: I like our club a lot right now. We have 16 new players and I think looking back after four games, we’ve been able to get about 13 position players out there, and 11 pitchers out there on the mound. That’s a plus, and shows me that we have some good depth on this team. The season is a process, and though I think we have a pretty good team, as I told you a month or so ago, we have to keep growing. We’re definitely not a finished product at this point.

Jeff Hoffman got up to 97 during opening weekend. (ECU photo)

Q: There was a lot of talk about starting pitchers David Lucroy and Tyler Bolton heading into the season. How would you assess their first starts?

GODWIN: It’s early, and though David struggled in his debut, I have a lot of confidence in him. He knows that’s not the performance we, or even he, expected, so he’ll be fine. I thought Bolton was solid out there. The main you have to remember is that as media, or coaches, or whatever, we all think guys should be in postseason or midseason form at this point. In most instances, that’s just not the case.

Q: Outside of the obvious guys like Jeff Hoffman, who stood out to you on the mound over the weekend?

GODWIN: I thought senior right-handed pitcher Ryan Williams looked pretty good. We moved him to long reliever, and to the bullpen, and he’s now up to 92 with his fastball. The fact we were able to go to a veteran, seasoned guy, out of the bullpen, basically resulted in two wins against James Madison. That was outstanding, and is really going to help us the rest of the season. Meanwhile, I thought Drew Reynolds (a two-way player) was impressive both on the mound and how he composed himself at the plate.

Q: Jeff Hoffman is the headliner of this team and was up to 97 against James Madison. How would you assess his first start?

GODWIN: I thought Jeff was very good. I think everyone kind of gets caught up in looking at the statistic lines too much, because he was pretty good. I really try to look at the process of how they pitch overall. I think the difference between Jeff now and maybe from last year is the development of his changeup. He can throw strikes with that pitch now. I think the thing about Jeff is just harnessing the attention. He deserves the publicity he’s getting, but the biggest thing is not getting caught up in that from a mental standpoint. We as a coaching staff continue to emphasize to Jeff that you don’t have to be absolutely perfect every time out and to every hitter. My experience in coaching is that elite pitchers only focus on their stuff and don’t worry about external factors. Even against teams like Virginia, if Jeff has that mentality, he’ll be just fine.

Q: How would you assess your club from an offensive standpoint going into the Virginia series?

GODWIN: I thought Ian Townsend, a junior college transfer, really had an impressive weekend at the plate. He had a couple of doubles and had a three-run homer in the Friday game. For him to come in and hit in our four-hole like that opening weekend was pretty impressive. We saw that from him in the fall, but it was good to see it opening weekend. Zach Houchins, Garrett and Travis Watkins also had some good at bats, while I think freshman Bryce Harman is going to put things together. Harman, I think, is starting to figure things out from an offensive standpoint.

Q: As a coach, what’s the biggest thing you’re worried about, or feel like needs to be improved the most?

GODWIN: Well, we need to quit giving away free passes. We have to do a better job of taking care of the ball out there. The biggest loss we had fro last year’s team was the departures of three infielders. We’re starting a freshman shortstop (Kirk Morgan), who I think will be good despite getting off to a slow start defensively, but we just have to take care of the ball better. With the pitching staff we have, we’re going to be in pretty good shape the rest of the season if we can play defense. That’s just the big thing our guys need to stay focused on moving forward.

Big weekend involving West Coast teams

• Sacramento State is off to an impressive start, and as the WAC favorite, that doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. With that said, the Hornets could be ripe for an upset of No. 19 Texas A&M this weekend as they hit the road to the Lone Star State. Starting pitchers Brennan Leitao and Ty Nichols both had impressive starts opening weekend, while sophomore closer Sutter McLoughlin is worth watching with a fastball into the mid-90s, along with a good changeup. The Hornets also have an excellent hitter in outfielder Rhys Hoskins. Hoskins, though he’s only hitting .211 through five games, has the potential to take over a series … As for the Aggies, they were pleased with the starts put together by Daniel Mengden, Parker Ray and Grayson Long over the weekend, while Jace Statum (.417) and Mitchell Nau (.400) had impressive opening weekends at the plate. Nau has continued where he left off last summer as the Texas Collegiate League Player of the Year.

• Cal Poly moved into the Perfect Game College Top 25 this week at No. 22 following a very impressive home series sweep over Kansas State. The Mustangs now have a chance to make an even bigger statement against No. 7 UCLA on the road, and they’re catching the Bruins at exactly the right time. UCLA has the tough chore of replacing Kevin Kramer, Eric Filia and Kevin Williams (until mid-March) offensively, and the unit struggled against Portland opening weekend. As for the Mustangs, outfielder Nick Torres (.500) is off to a red-hot start, while left-handed pitcher and rising prospect Matt Imhof couldn’t have had a better season debut with 14 strikeouts and three walks in seven innings over the weekend. The biggest potential development for the Mustangs are the starts by Slater Lee and Casey Bloomquist opening weekend against K-State. The rotation after Imhof was the chief concern entering the season, and both excelled opening weekend, with Lee striking out seven and allowing a run in 6 1/3 innings of work, and Bloomquist allowing just a run in five innings.

• San Francisco is expected to compete for one of the West Coast Conference’s postseason bids, but started the season in negative fashion with a road series loss to UC Riverside. Now, the Dons have the tough chore of going on the road to face angry and No. 2 Cal State Fullerton. The Dons have gotten hot starts offensively from Derek Atkinson (.417) and rising prospect Bradley Zimmer (.429), but desperately need staff ace pitcher Abe Bobb to rise to the occasion against the Titans. Bobb struggled against the Highlanders opening weekend, allowing five runs in five innings. As for the Titans, right-handed pitcher Justin Garza was 93-94 with his fastball opening weekend against Washington State, but struggled with placement and his secondary stuff. Thomas Eshelman likely will be brilliant as always, but Garza must return to form. The Titans also could have a new look at second base this weekend, as defense is a concern.

• Loyola Marymount has accomplished some positive things over the past couple of seasons, but now coach Jason Gill and his staff want to take the next step with a postseason appearance. Though the Lions entered the season already a bit behind with the loss of right-handed pitcher Trevor Megill because of an injury, they could make a statement this weekend with a series win at home against No. 8 Oregon. The big key to the weekend is getting off on the right foot with righty Colin Welmon on the mound. Welmon, who can get up to 93 with his fastball, has a good changeup and good command, struck out five and allowed just a run on five hits in seven innings in his first start against Utah Valley, a series LMU won two games to one … As for Oregon, coach George Horton proceeds the rest of the season after earning his 900th career win at Hawaii last weekend. The Ducks are without left-handed pitcher Cole Irvin the rest of the season, but got a terrific opening day start from talented lefty Tommy Thorpe, who allowed two runs on just three hits in six innings against Hawaii.

Watch out for …

• Western Carolina headed to Mississippi State at the last second last week when the Bulldogs’ series against Hofstra was cancelled because of weather. The Catamounts didn’t exactly roll over for the highly ranked Bulldogs. They actually gave John Cohen’s club all they could handle, and now right-handed pitcher Jeremy Null and his teammates hit the road to Washington State for a four-game series this weekend. Null struck out 12 and allowed just three hits in eight shutout frames against the Bulldogs.

• Georgia State had one of most impressive weekends from an offensive standpoint in a home series win over a solid Illinois team. Now, the Panthers hit the road this weekend to face an Ole Miss club that stymied Stetson’s bats throughout opening weekend. GSU is hitting .384 entering the series and has one of the nation’s elite players in shortstop Chad Prain, who’s hitting .389 with three RBIs, and is coming off a stellar 2013 season. Meanwhile, Chris Triplett is off to a sensational start with a .471 batting average, a home run and seven RBIs. Conventional wisdom suggests the Rebels take care of their home turf, but this series could be interesting.

Cleaning out the notebook

• Long Beach State had a tough opening weekend, going 0-3 against Vanderbilt over the weekend. The Dirtbags got even more bad news as starting pitchers Ryan Strufing and Jake Stassi missed the weekend because of injuries. Strufing is recovering from a stress fracture and will be out at least another three weeks or so. However, the prognosis on Stassi isn't so great, as he will miss the rest of the season because of Tommy John surgery.

Rutgers head coach Fred Hill announced his retirement after 37 seasons as a coach at the collegiate level. Hill finishes his coaching career with 1,089 wins. The Scarlet Knights, effectively immediately, will begin the Joe Litterio era. Litterio, a Rutgers graduate, returned to the RU coaching staff as an assistant before the 2012 campaign.

Missouri talented freshman right-handed pitcher Alec Rash missed opening weekend, causing some to wonder if he was involved in the Philadelphia Phillies' controversy, which included turning in Oregon State's Ben Wetzler and Washington State's Jason Monda for allegedly breaking the NCAA's no-agent rule. Rash, though, according to sources, missed opening weekend because of a violation of team rules, and will travel with the team this weekend.

UCLA is dealing with quite the number of injuries so far this season. As we reported last week, the Bruins will be without Kevin Kramer and Eric Filia for the season, while left-handed pitcher Hunter Virant, who is dealing with a lower back issue after having a shoulder issue last season, also is gone for the year. The lone positive news in all this is the Bruins should welcome back Kevin Williams sometime in mid-to-late March.

USC relied on freshman shortstop Frankie Rios to get through the first four games of the season, but would like to get Blake Lacey back in the mix as well. Lacey has been out of commission because of an injury, but coach Dan Hubbs said earlier this week he should soon be good to go.

Texas A&M outfielder Krey Bratsen, a speedy prospect, has yet to play this season, prompting some speculation. But sources say Bratsen is dealing with a non-baseball related illness and a time table for his return isn't known at this time. It's not expected to be serious.

LSU freshman right-handed pitcher Troy Whitty will miss the 2014 campaign, as he's scheduled to have knee surgery. Whitty was one of the nation's top 500 prospects out of high school and has a bright future ahead of him.

Stanford talented right-handed pitcher Freddy Avis has yet to throw a pitch this season, but we spoke with Cardinal pitching coach Rusty Filter earlier this week, who said Avis continues to progress well. Filter added there's no timeline on Avis' return. There's also been a lot of speculation about the status of fellow righty A.J. Vanegas, but we're hearing he could be closer to returning than many realize.

South Carolina right-handed reliever Evan Beal will miss at least the next three weeks because of a stress reaction in his back, the Gamecocks announce on Thursday. Beal tallied a 4.78 ERA in 32 innings of work last season.

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