It doesn't get any more difficult than facing the #1 team on the road. The Tigers have a chance to put themselves in the National Seed discussion with a series win this weekend, not to mention regain some pride after being swept by Florida the last 2 years. To get an idea of the challenge ahead, I spoke with BKGator of Alligator Army.
PodKATT: Florida's power numbers seem to have fallen out of a time warp from 3 years ago, or maybe even from the late 90's. 41 homers through 29 games with all of your regular starters slugging over .400. The numbers haven't slacked off much in conference play, either. If there is a weakness in this lineup, where is it?
BKGator: This team plays with great power and great small ball. It's really tough to figure out what to do with this team. You have a guy like Preston Tucker who leads the team in home runs, as well as sac flys. Kevin O'Sullivan isn't afraid to have him bunt in the right situation as well. Florida is a team in the true sense of the word. If there were a weakness, it would that injuries have derailed some of our hitting prowess late in the lineup. OF Tyler Thompson used to bat ninth and was batting extremely well with some power and speed. But Thompson is out for the season with a torn ACL. 3B Josh Tobias is also injured and he's come through with some clutch hits and RBI for us. He might be able to make it back for this series, but who knows if he'll be the same. Thompson and Tobias' replacements Cody Dent (yes, that's Bucky Dent's kid) and a combination of Justin Shafer and Vickash Ramjit haven't exactly been sparkling. Ramjit came through with some big hits against South Carolina, but Dent and Shafer haven't done much with Dent (and Ramjit for that matter) usually getting playing time as defensive replacements. I don't think the Gators have fielded the same lineup twice throughout this entire season, and O'Sullivan isn't afraid to use freshman, so we'll see what lineup he throws out there each day this weekend.
PK: The Gators have a big draft star in catcher Mike Zunino, who's both your leading hitter and playing a perfect game behind the plate. Should Tiger pitching just intentionally walk him all weekend and save ourselves some pain?
BK: I wouldn't recommend walking Zunino. You've got too many guys behind him that can hurt you. Freshman Taylor Gushue has played really well in the 5-hole, hitting for average and power. He provides protections for someone as important as Zunino in this lineup. And like I said, these Gators have power, but still play small ball, so they can hurt you in any number of ways.
PK: UF looked damn near invincible until the last few days, with an unexpected series loss at Ole Miss and a head scratcher of a mid week loss to Smoke Laval's North Florida. Cause for concern or is it just a blip?
BK: Despite Florida being maybe the most experienced team in the nation, they do start at least three freshman on a nightly basis in key positions - first base, second base, and third base. An eight game road trip nearing it's end against a good Ole Miss team isn't much to worry about. The North Florida loss is something else. Florida should never lose to a directional Florida team or anything with International or Atlantic in it. There's no excuse for that. The only silver lining is they got Karsten Whitson, last years #9 overall pick in the MLB draft to the San Diego Padres back to pitch one inning. He hasn't pitched in about five weeks and he was the Freshman of the Year last year. Florida threw seven pitchers out there, and this game was about getting Whitson back into some repetition for the stretch run. So it's a little cause for concern, but I think it's most likely just a blip. Florida's played an incredibly tough schedule so far and their RPI is number 1. Sometimes the grind of playing at such a high level can take it's toll on you. But be careful Tiger fans, I'm sure they're gonna come out wanting a sweep of this series to affirm their number one ranking. Some people are saying Kentucky should get their due. I want to see Kentucky's record after the SEC season. They didn't play Florida State, Miami, Cal State Fullerton, etc., in their non-conference schedule. The beefed their record up on cupcakes. Baseball's fickle. You can drop one game to anybody at any time, even if you're clearly the better team. The mid-week loss was just more of a preparation for the stretch run.
PK: The position matchup that seems to favor LSU most is starting pitching, particularly on Friday and Saturday with Gausman and Eades. The Gator bullpen seems to get a lot of action, and is full of strong relievers. How quick of a trigger finger does Coach O'Sullivan have when things aren't going well?
BK: LSU has a great pitching staff, obviously being named "Staff of the Week" by insidepitching.com. But don't count the Gators starters out. The reason why they haven't gotten to go deep into games is because we don't want to have tired arms for the post season. Florida's ace, Hudson Randall, is a control freak. He barely walks anyone, while striking out a ton of batters. And he pitches under pressure. His fastball touches 94 at times, but with Randall, it's all about control. Same thing with Friday night's starter, Brian Johnson. Both guys don't have overpowering stuff, but they find their locations. The pitching staff with all of it's experience was supposed to be the strength of this veteran heavy team, so don't discount the Gators pitching. However, you are correct on that Florida has a deep, strong bullpen capped of with possibly the best closer in college baseball in Austin Maddox. O'Sullivan has faith in both his starters and his relievers. If Sully can get six innings out of his starter, it's usually game over from there and he won't hesitate to turn the game over to the 'pen. And now that it's about mid-season, he's stretching the starter's outings out more. He's being cautious with his starters, while knowing his relievers can certainly do the job if any trouble comes about.
PK: Despite amazing success the last few seasons, the Gators are still lacking that critical piece of hardware from Omaha. Based on what you've seen so far, Is this the year Florida finally gets a title?
BK: Right after we lost the College World Series last year, I heard predictions of a 60-65 win season. Then I thought about it and thought it was nearly impossible to do that. This year's team has an outside chance to crack 60, but I think O'Sullivan and this team is ready to take it to the next level. Saving starter's for the stretch run, giving integral players rest when they need it, and so on. This team is largely intact from last year's squad. The Gators are, and I'm not being biased, by far the most talented team out there. If they play their game and learn from their mistakes from last year, I think its title or bust. This team wants it, this team has shown the hunger early on, and this team will be a force to be reckoned with during tournament time. They will be battle tested and I think this is the year Florida finally gets that elusive title. Be careful for next year too, however. Florida recruits so well and gives playing time to everyone so there's always experience on the team. The Gators under Sully don't rebuild, they reload.
The Tigers also have some of their own issues to deal with this weekend. After being pulled early last Sunday, Aaron Nola's been diagnosed with muscle fatigue and will not start this weekend. He is traveling with the team, but Mainieri will be resistant to use him at all. In Nola's absence, Kurt McCune will get his first SEC start of the season on Thursday night, while Gausman and Eades stay in their Friday and Saturday roles.
There is a chance of rain tonight, but it clears out before Friday night. Cloudy and in the 80s for the weekend.
Game 1-6:30 pm-ESPNU
LSU - So. RHP Kurt McCune (1-3, 4.76 ERA, 22.2 IP, 10 BB, 16 SO)
UF - Jr. LHP Brian Johnson (4-0, 3.28 ERA, 35.2 IP, 8 BB, 29 SO)
Game 2-6pm-FSN Florida, FCS Atlantic
LSU - So. RHP Kevin Gausman (5-0, 2.27 ERA, 47.2 IP, 13 BB, 62 SO)
UF - So. RHP Karsten Whitson (1-0, 4.05 ERA, 6.2 IP, 3 BB, 4 SO)
Game 3-3pm-No TV (Video available in the Geaux Zone)
LSU - So. RHP Ryan Eades (4-1, 1.91 ERA, 47.0 IP, 9 BB, 39 SO)
UF - Jr. RHP Hudson Randall (3-1, 3.56 ERA, 43.0, 3 BB, 38 SO)