Healthier and more experienced, Florida Gators catcher Mike Zunino is prepared for College World Series

GAINESVILLE — You could make a strong argument that Florida catcher Mike Zunino is a prime example of how much different the Gators are today than they were heading into last year's College World Series.

When Florida arrived in Omaha, Neb., last season, Zunino was nearing the end of his freshman season. And though he was the starter all year, he was battling injuries and still learning the nuances of the college game. UF went two and out.

One year later, Zunino is the SEC player of the year, a Baseball America first-team All-American and experienced enough that his pitchers say he has become an extension of coach Kevin O'Sullivan in his ability to call a game.

That experience for Zunino and the entire team is what the Gators believe separates them from a year ago heading into tonight's opening matchup with Texas.

"We were sort of content with just going (to the CWS) last year," said Zunino, from Cape Coral. "It was such a big step, at least for me, knowing that we could get there and being young. But this year we definitely know we have business to take care of. We can't be satisfied with just making it there. We're hoping to make a run for it."

The son of Cincinnati Reds scout Greg Zunino, Mike grew up around the game. At the end of last season, he played with a dislocated left thumb and a broken right thumb, injuries that forced him to sit out summer ball while they healed and focus on his game from a cerebral perspective.

"I had a couple of months just to sit and talk with my dad," Zunino said. "I just sort of went over the season, went over what I wanted to improve offensively and defensively, and I think that helped this year.

"I always followed baseball, and I used to travel with my dad and go watch games. I've just always been around it, and it's something I can talk to him about. He helps me out a lot when it comes to just talking baseball and just being around the game. He always tells me to just take it one game at a time, don't let success get to you, don't let failure get to you, just try to stay even-keel and do the best you can."

That advice has paid off.

Zunino leads the Gators and is among the SEC leaders in batting average (.376), total bases (168), hits (92), runs (72), doubles (22), home runs (18), slugging percentage (.686) and on-base percentage (.444). He has a .996 fielding percentage, with two errors in 524 chances, and has thrown out almost a third of the runners who have attempted to steal on him.

"With him behind the plate, anybody's very, very comfortable," said junior pitcher Alex Panteliodis, a former Alonso High standout. "I can throw anything I want, and I know that he's a wall back there and he can block it. I don't have to worry about the runners on base because he's very accurate; he can throw anybody out at any given moment.

"It's just very comfortable. He knows the hitters. I never really shake him off."

Experience and familiarity with one another have led the Gators back to the CWS for the second consecutive season. One year after they got knocked out in two games, the Gators now say they were ill-prepared for the experience, a mistake they've vowed not to repeat.

The Gators also believe the kind of season they've survived will give them the necessary edge. Florida has 18 come-from-behind wins, including in the final game of the Super Regional against Mississippi State. And of the eight CWS teams, three are from the SEC East: Florida, Vanderbilt and defending national champion South Carolina.

"I think it certainly makes you battle-tested, there's no question," O'Sullivan said. "Our team goal is to not only get to Omaha but to win it.

"I think we learned a lot last year, and all we can do is hope to put ourselves in a little bit better position to have more success out there. But ultimately we still have to play the game, and we're playing against some really good clubs."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

. Fast facts

Weekend schedule

Today — North Carolina (50-14) vs. Vanderbilt (52-10), 2 p.m.; Florida (50-17) vs. Texas (49-17), 7 p.m. Sunday — California (37-21) vs. Virginia (54-10), 2 p.m.; Texas A&M (47-20) vs. South Carolina (50-14), 7 p.m.

Healthier and more experienced, Florida Gators catcher Mike Zunino is prepared for College World Series 06/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 12:43am]

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