Commentary

Preseason pressure pushes Florida

Originally Published: June 17, 2011
By Edward Aschoff | ESPN.com

Shortly after Florida's two-and-out disappointment in last year's College World Series, coach Kevin O'Sullivan sulked and reflected alone.

[+] EnlargeMike Zunino
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireMike Zunino and the Gators are ready for the spectacle that is the College World Series.

Tucked away in his desolate hotel room, he meticulously studied two pages of hotel stationary that he littered with scribbled notes of everything he wished he'd done differently during his first trip to Omaha as a head coach.

Did he play the right people? Were his pitching matchups really what he wanted? Was the pre-series preparation correct?

The list goes on and gets much more detailed, but what O'Sullivan, who is often referred to as "Sully" when he's in a good mood, took away from Florida's quick trip to college baseball's ultimate destination was that neither he nor his players enjoyed how they got there. They were too high-strung to relish the season they had.

Instead of playing loose and easy, the Gators were tight. The group of talented youngsters that was the driving force in Florida's 2010 success took one look at the bright lights of Rosenblatt Stadium and froze like a deer in headlights.

Sophomore catcher Mike Zunino even admitted the freshmen felt content with just reaching Omaha and weren't mentally prepared.

The SEC champions looked hardly like the No. 3 seed they were given prior to postseason play, leading just twice in two games.

Florida now returns to Omaha as the 2-seed, but not as the young pups who were lost in the Midwestern shuffle a year ago. This team -- along with its coach -- is embracing its position and is savoring this experience.

"I think I appreciate it more," O'Sullivan said of making a second trip to the College World Series. "You take a step back, you take a breather and just enjoy the moment a little bit more. I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I should have last year."

No one associated with Florida's program did.

Junior right fielder Preston Tucker, who mashed out 14 home runs and drove in a team-high 68 runs this season, said the Gators were "overwhelmed" by the whirlwind that is the Omaha experience. It was painful to leave the final stage of the baseball season as underachievers, he said.

[+] EnlargeMike Zunino
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireLast year's stay in Omaha was much shorter than Florida had hoped for.

Even the idea of returning to Omaha conjured bittersweet feelings for Tucker. He said it's been tough grasping the idea of heading back because of the gut-wrenching feeling attached to last year's trip.

But he can see a difference in this year's team. The Gators earned a share of the SEC regular-season title, won the conference tournament and just came off an exhausting three-game series with Mississippi State in the Gainesville Super Regional, in which the Gators gave up a four-run lead in the finale, only to rebound late, thanks to a three-run homer by Tucker.

"This year is different," Tucker said. "Everyone has worked a lot harder. That's been our goal, to get back there and win it this year.

"Everyone's focused and now everyone knows that this [advancing to the College World Series] isn't the end. This isn't what we've been waiting for."

They're waiting to bring home a national championship.

Florida is headlined by a pitching staff holding a 3.01 ERA and was powered by starters Hudson Randall (10-3, 2.29 ERA) and Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.66) and freshman Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.45). Johnson had missed all of postseason play with a concussion, but could return to the Gators' starting rotation after being medically cleared Thursday.

Offensively, the Gators have been on a roll, outscoring opponents 55-22 in the postseason and their current starting lineup doesn't feature a hitter batting less than .300.

However, this group wasn't always poised to be here.

Months before, the Gators searched for anything that consistently worked. Hitting suffered and midweek games became almost unbearable for Florida.

The preseason top-three team dropped an early home series to South Carolina and turned around to lose to rival Florida State two days after that. A week later, the Gators lost three of their next five and there were moments when O'Sullivan privately worried about the well-being of his team.

While players and coaches tried not to let on, it seemed as though the preseason hype was wearing on them.

Tucker said players pressed at the plate and over-thought the simple things. The cure was pretty simple, too. Instead of pounding out the practice reps, the Gators relaxed and cleared their heads.

What transpired was an end-of-the-year hitting revival in which late-inning hits pushed Florida to two victories at Vanderbilt and a rebound from a Saturday loss to take a home series from Kentucky to capture a share of the SEC regular-season title.

But it wasn't until the Gators won the dogfight with Mississippi State that Tucker realized this was a special team.

Dropping one of the three games to the Bulldogs sent Florida to one of its lowest points of the year before Sunday's exciting finale, but it was a loss that Tucker said should mentally benefit Florida.

"We have a different mentality than we did last year," he said. "We cruised into Omaha [last season]. Like Sully said, the loss is almost good for us. We have to come from behind; we have to win big games. We're going to play a lot of close games in Omaha and we know we're not going to be blowing people out. We know it's going to come down to the ninth inning. We're going to have to get big hits and make pitches.

"We can do a good job of that."

But what about the pressure?

The Gators are not only a top seed, but will be expected to be in this thing late. An early exit will be unacceptable.

According to Tucker, that's of no concern. This year the Gators are all business, Tucker said, and the pressure is just another minor obstacle this team is finally ready to hurdle.

"We've embraced the targets on our backs," he said.

Edward Aschoff covers college sports for ESPN.com.