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May 15, 2013

Resilient Gators travel with postseason on the line



There are seasons where everything seems to align perfectly, and then there is what Florida's baseball team has dealt with in 2013. It's the exact opposite. If you're inclined to believe in baseball gods, maybe the Gators haven't been to church in a while.

It started early in the season when it looked like Florida might need a miracle just to keep its 56-game regular season slate interesting. The Gators started the season 11-16, forced to fight back to .500 during the toughest stretch of their schedule.

There was one injury after another.

Starting pitcher Karsten Whitson was ruled out for the year before opening night because of shoulder surgery. Right-hander Keenan Kish made three appearances before his summer hip injury became too much and season-ending surgery was needed. Star freshman Richie Martin leads the team in batting average but missed 15 games with a broken finger and has yet to return to his natural shortstop position.

Eight different pitchers have started a weekend game for the Gators this season. All but Jonathon Crawford are freshmen or sophomores.

Still, Florida (28-25, 13-14 Southeastern Conference) travels to Georgia Thursday for a three-game series against the worst team in the SEC with a postseason berth on the line.

"It just shows we're resilient," relief pitcher Ryan Harris said. "We had a lot of things we didn't expect to come through, but we've been battling through the season's ups and downs. It shows this team has some character."

Resiliency isn't permanent, and the Gators aren't immune to the issues that plagued them when it felt like the NCAA Tournament was the giant unicorn in the room, impossible to ignore but simultaneously unattainable. Against Auburn this past weekend, Florida left 21 runners on base and allowed six home runs in three games. The Gators allowed 27 homers in 50 previous games. They lost two of three to the Tigers.

"You've just got to forget about the last weekend," sophomore pitcher Johnny Magliozzi said. ""We didn't really show up all three games. We could have gotten swept."

If Florida handles its business starting Thursday night, the last two regular season series will feel like a microcosm of this season encompassing the lows and the highs. If not, a young team will need a substantial SEC Tournament run to assure its sixth consecutive trip to the postseason. Either way, the fact the Gators are in this spot is worth noting.

"We battled and we put ourselves in position to control our own destiny and that's pretty much what each year your goal is," UF coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We certainly have that in front of us."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR THIS WEEKEND

Florida's strength of schedule is as good as any in the country. As it stands, Florida has played teams currently ranked No. 2, 3, 9, 14, 15, 21 and 23 in the nation. It is likely the Gators only need to finish above .500 overall to make the NCAA Tournament, meaning they would only have to win one game against the Bulldogs (19-31, 5-19 SEC).

The flip side: To a selection panel, closing a regular season with back-to-back series losses to the last-place team in the SEC West and the last-place team in the SEC East would be a hard sell. Florida might need to win this series, and a sweep certainly wouldn't hurt either.

Georgia has rarely had less to lose than it does this weekend, and despite being a consistent bottom-feeder in most statistical categories, must be taken seriously. The Bulldogs' shaky pitching - a 4.60 staff ERA - could be what a sputtering Gators lineup needs.

WEEKEND GAME TIMES

Thursday: 7 p.m.
Friday: 7 p.m.
Saturday: 2 p.m.


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