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After slow start, Florida Gators surge into baseball tourney

GAINESVILLE — The early season woes seem so far away now.

About one month into the season, it might have been difficult to envision the Florida Gators as a No. 2 national seed in the NCAA baseball tournament. The Gators went 6-6 in the first month, and they struggled to find any consistency.

But the Gators (40-21) rebounded from the .500 start, winning nine of their next 10 games, eventually winning their 13th SEC regular-season title and advancing to the SEC tournament championship game on Sunday before losing 2-0 to LSU.

"We all knew that we had the pieces, it was just that at the beginning of the season they weren't all fitting right together," said junior catcher Taylor Gushue, who on Thursday was named a second-team Louisville Slugger All-American. "But I feel like after we went 6-6 and started the season out, it really turned around and all the guys just started clicking. It's just one of those things that happen with a team and it just happened for us."

Tonight, the Gators begin play in the Gainesville Region vs. College of Charleston, the fifth time in the past six seasons they've been a national seed. Yet this is a seeded team whose stats don't overwhelm.

Florida led the SEC in saves (20) — with eight pitchers with at least one save — and tied for second in defense (.975 fielding percentage). But in nearly all of the major statistical categories, the Gators on paper were just average in the league: .267 team batting average (11th), 3.26 ERA (seventh), 26 home runs (tied for sixth) and 34 home runs allowed (13th).

"We just know how to win, that's it," Gushue said. "We're not going to impress you with a whole bunch of wow factors, but take our 40-win season and the hardest schedule in the nation to be your wow factor."

This season's squad is comprised of a young pitching staff — the Gators are scheduled to start freshman Logan Shore tonight — and players who have learned to play as a team.

"It's been a different guy every week up until this point of the season," junior pitcher Karsten Whitson said. "We've had a number of guys step up, whether that's on the mound or at the plate, it's been good for our team. We've jelled really well, and we don't really need one certain person to have the pressure to make the big pitch or the big hit; as a team we've just gotten it done. It's been fun to watch. It's been fun to be a part of."

Coach Kevin O'Sullivan has led his team into the NCAA tournament all seven years at Florida — the longest run in school history. Last season, the Gators went 0-2 in the Bloomington (Ind.) Region to finish the season 29-30. O'Sullivan believes a much different outcome is possible this time.

"I feel very good about our team," O'Sullivan said. "Obviously we have to go out and play very well against good opponents, but I feel very good about this team — not taking anything away from those other teams. Every year you learn stuff, but this has been an extremely gratifying season for me personally to bounce back from last year and to have so many guys contribute and so many different guys blending in and accomplishing the goal of the SEC (title). … Now obviously we've got to win, we've got to play well this weekend. But up to this point I feel as good about this team as I have about any other group I've had."

Antonya English can be reached at aenglish@tampabay.com.

NCAA baseball regions

What: All double-elimination regions will be held today-Sunday, with a game on Monday if necessary. All games can be seen on ESPN3.

GAINESVILLE

Where: McKethan Stadium, Gainesville

Today: Long Beach State (32-24) vs. North Carolina (34-25), 1 p.m.; College of Charleston (41-17) vs. Florida (40-21), 7 p.m.

Coral gables

Where: Mark Light Field, Coral Gables

Today: Texas Tech (40-18) vs. Columbia (29-18), 2 p.m.; Bethune-Cookman (26-31) vs. Miami (41-17), 7 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE

Where: Dick Howser Stadium, Tallahassee

Today: Alabama (34-20) vs. Kennesaw State (37-21), noon.; Georgia Southern (39-21) vs. Florida State (43-15), 6 p.m.

After slow start, Florida Gators surge into baseball tourney 05/29/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2014 10:34pm]

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