GAINESVILLE — After years on the recruiting trail, Florida baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan has a knack for quickly recognizing talent when he's scouting a player. But no matter how meticulous the recruiting effort, O'Sullivan knows it's rare that a talented high school player becomes an instant college star.
"Regardless of how talented a freshman is, there's always a learning curve," he said.
But during the summer of 2007 while he was in Cary, N.C., at an all-star tournament, O'Sullivan spotted then-Plant High standout Preston Tucker and sensed he was seeing something special. Tucker was using a wood bat, and his hits were spraying the whole field, O'Sullivan remembers. There was something about this kid.
"There are just certain guys, when they come to the plate everybody just stops what they are doing and just kind of watches. He's got that about him. He's got an air about him, he's got a confidence and you can see it in his mannerisms."
More important, you can see it in his performance this season.
On Sunday, the SEC's co-freshman of the year set Florida's single-season RBI record with 83. Tucker, named most outstanding player of the NCAA Tournament's Gainesville Region, was 9-for-13 (.692) with six RBI, four runs and two home runs last weekend in three games against Bethune-Cookman and Miami. He has 23 multiple-RBI games this season.
"He's been locked in for an awfully long time," O'Sullivan said. "You see stretches for a week or two, but to be locked in as long as he has is phenomenal. Going into the SEC weekend, he had two of the most phenomenal stats I've seen: He was hitting .409 versus lefties in SEC play, and hitting .481 with runners in scoring position.
"I mean, that's just unheard of. And that's against the best pitching in the SEC."
The Gators (42-20), No. 10 in the Baseball America poll, host Southern Mississippi (38-24) in the NCAA Super Region this weekend, with the winner advancing to the College World Series.
The Gators will need Tucker to continue his hot hitting. Yet the first baseman, who turns 19 next month, insists he's only as good as the players around him.
"Everyone is swinging the bat (well), so there's always guys on base when I get up there," he said. "There's a lot more pressure on the pitcher than I have.
"This season to me has been all about adjustments, going from the first game to now. I've always had to make an adjustment, whether it's a pitcher or it's our pitching or our hitting. The game sped up going from high school to college. Again, it's all adjustments and I'm just trying to make those."
Tucker has started in 55 of the Gators' 60 games and is batting .357 with 13 doubles and a team-high 14 home runs. He has a .617 slugging percentage and a .408 on-base percentage.
The manner in which he has adjusted so quickly has impressed his teammates.
"He wasn't in the lineup his first couple of weeks and for him to battle and work to where he's at today, he's a tremendous player," junior outfielder Matt den Dekker said. "He's had a great season, probably one of the most amazing seasons I've seen. To do that, coming in as a freshman and to make that adjustment so quick, it just shows how talented he is. He's been a major part of our success this season."
Like O'Sullivan, teammate Josh Adams also sensed something special about Tucker early. It's now evident to everyone on the team.
"I was here over the summer when Preston came in and everybody knew he could hit," Adams said. "I threw (batting practice) to him the first day he was here and he was just hitting balls off the scoreboard. But then we took ground balls and it was one of those things — it was a little iffy. But that's definitely what's impressed me the most, his maturity. He's leading the team over at first base. He's done a great job, and hopefully he'll keep it up."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3389.