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June 26, 2011

CWS: The Gator Storylines

For the second time in school history, the Florida Gators baseball program is set to compete in the College World Series Championship Series with an opportunity to take home the school's first national title in the sport. Florida will take on their Southeastern Conference rivals and the defending NCAA champions, the South Carolina Gamecocks, in a best-of-three series that could stretch through Wednesday. Let's take a look at some of the bigger story-lines heading into the game from a (mostly) Orange and Blue perspective.

Pigott and Dent stealing the show from the bottom: While some of Florida's offensive juggernauts have been less than stellar this postseason, two players who have come up big are the Gators' seven/eight and nine hitters junior outfielder Daniel Pigott and freshman third baseman Cody Dent. Dent, who bats ninth and was having a dreadful season at the plate, has broken out (relatively) since NCAA competition began. He is currently hitting at a .296 clip with three RBI, six runs and eight walks, getting on base nearly 46 percent of the time he steps to the plate. Equally impressive is what Pigott has done, hitting .412 with 10 RBI, 10 R and a pair of walks.

Home runs dissipate, small ball emerges: A team that powered its way to victory most of the season, Florida has only smacked one homer in the CWS (junior first baseman Preston Tucker's three-run bomb on Monday). Not only is TD Ameritrade Park a sizable field to play on, the Gators have been facing some of the best pitcher in the country and, simply put, aren't connecting as well as they have most of the season. But that's OK. Florida has hit 23 times in the last three games, scored in 10 of 25 frames, and showed that they can get it done by laying the ball down if necessary.

Tucker emerges while Zunino fades: Sophomore catcher Mike Zunino, the 2011 SEC Player of the Year, has been counted on all season to get the Gators out of jams. He's handled that role quite effectively, leading Florida in most offensive categories. However, over the last three games, Zunino has remained relatively quiet while Tucker has taken the lead in his stead. The former is 2/12 in the series with a run and walk, while the latter is 4/14 with a home run, six RBI and two runs scored.

Fontana's skid over? Consistent at the top of the order throughout the season for UF, sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana had been slumping for a while. He was hitless in four straight games beginning June 11 and only notched a single RBI while walking five times and scoring three runs. Friday, when the Gators needed him to come through big, he smacked a bouncer up the middle and ended his 0/17 skid with two hits, a pair of RBI and a walk.

Smith still streaking: One player getting it done no matter where he hits at the top of the order is senior outfielder Bryson Smith, who is batting .472 (17/36) in the NCAA Tournament (nine games) and is currently riding a 13-game hitting streak. If Fontana can get going, Smith remains consistent, Tucker continues being productive and the bottom of the order contributes as it has been, UF's offense is going to be tough to deal with top-to-bottom, like it has been most of the season.

Throwing Panda paid off: The debate raged on for days - should head coach Kevin O'Sullivan do whatever it takes to win Friday and throw sophomore right-hander Hudson Randall or play it safe with junior left-hander Alex Panteliodis, who has taken on a Andy Pettite-like dominance in clinching games while filling in for sophomore right-hander Brian Johnson in the rotation? O'Sullivan went with the former, and Panteliodis came through with six strong innings, striking out three and only allowing a single earned run. Then things, as they say, went to the dogs. O'Sullivan pulled Panteliodis because of his pitch count for junior righty Tommy Toledo, who immediately gave up two runs before being removed from the game himself. Nevertheless, the end result is a completely fresh rotation for the Championship Series, something South Carolina cannot boast due to their 13-inning extravaganza.

Good Nick vs. Bad Nick: When junior lefty Nick Maronde is on, no one can hit him. But when he's off, it is difficult to watch him pitch. Luckily for the Gators, Maronde is on most of the time, as evidenced by 1.93 ERA on the season in 35 relief appearances. However, dating back to the Super Regionals, Maronde has been anything but consistent. In his best outing since the Super Regionals began, he struck out three batters in two innings and earned a save against Texas. His other three appearances have been quite lackluster with Maronde allowing two earned runs, a pair of hits and two walks (both on Friday) while only striking out one. Florida's bullpen is solid and there are plenty of options, but in a series with so much pressure on each and every out, he is going to have to step up big time for the Gators.

Closer comes through after long break: Sophomore right-hander Austin Maddox pitched for the first time in weeks on Friday and, after hitting a batter, got Florida out of a tough spot against Vanderbilt and eventually earned the win. As color man Orel Hershiser noted during the game, Maddox's protective foot covering may have led to his inconsistencies early in his outing, but his talent shined through when it came down to it. Having Maddox back and able to pitch is big for the Gators, which hope to count on him for an inning (or more) at least twice in the coming days.

Gamecocks tired, not using ideal rotation: The fans are not the only ones exhausted from South Carolina's extra innings slobberknocker on Friday. USC junior ace Michael Roth, who is 13-3 on the season with a 0.98 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 137.1 innings, will not be on the mound when the CWS begins on Monday. Instead, the Gamecocks will likely toss freshman Forrest Koumas (6-1, 3.07 ERA), a talented but young pitcher who will be played in a tough spot. In order to clinch their spot in the Championship Series, South Carolina also allowed their closer to pitch the game of a starter on Friday. Matt Price, who has 18 saves on the season, threw 95 pitches in 5.2 innings. He allowed seven hits and gave up five walks during the game in an outing that could cause his coaches to be a bit cautious with him at least in game one.

Walker stuck in the dugout? The Gamecocks best hitter, 1B Christian Walker, may be left out of the lineup on Monday if his injured wrist does not get any better. With his status "in question," according to South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner, Walker was unable to hit in batting practice on Sunday even while wearing a brace, according to The Post and Courier's Travis Haney. "It's a big blow for us," Tanner said. "He's been our best hitter, start to finish for us. He's been a key component of our offense. It's a blow if he's not able to go." Walker is hitting .355 with 10 homers and 62 RBI this season.


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