Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Sports

Pressure only increases for Florida Gators baseball at College World Series

Junior catcher Mike Zunino became the first Florida player to win the Dick Howser Trophy, presented annually to the nation's top collegiate baseball player.

Zunino is a 2011 and 2012 All-American as well as the 2011 SEC player of the year and first-team catcher both years. He has helped lead the Gators to three consecutive World Series berths.

This season, he has started 64 games, with team highs of 28 doubles, 19 homers and 64 RBIs. The Cape Coral native is hitting .322 (just behind Daniel Pigott's .323), slugging .678 and has thrown out about a third of the runners who have attempted to steal. On June 4, Zunino became the highest draft choice in school history, No. 3 to the Mariners.

"Mike Zunino epitomizes the true qualities of Dick Howser: ability, leadership, character and courage," said Howser Trophy chair David Feaster of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, who presented the award Friday to Zunino prior to the CWS in Omaha, Neb., where the Gators open play today. "He has taken Florida to new heights in the past two years as well as being a tremendous team leader and go-to student-athlete in all areas."

The Dick Howser Trophy is given in memory of the former Florida State All-America shortstop, major-league player and major-league manager who died of brain cancer in 1987.

Zunino also is a finalist for the Golden Spikes, the player of the year award given by USA Baseball. That winner will be announced July 6.

In a moment of candor shortly after the Florida baseball team earned a berth in the College World Series, coach Kevin O'Sullivan acknowledged it has been a pressure-filled, sometimes trying season.

The Gators opened the season ranked No. 1 in all four polls, and with a large group of returning players from last year's national runnerup team, the internal desire and outside expectations to get back to the World Series were sometimes a heavy burden.

"It was one of those things that was like the big elephant in the room that no one talked about," O'Sullivan said. "It was just there. It has not been an easy road. It's been an enjoyable one. I've learned things this year that I didn't know. These players handled the pressures and expectations extremely well."

And now that the top-seeded Gators have found their way back to Omaha, Neb., for the double-elimination tournament, the bracket has ensured that achieving that ultimate goal won't come without more pressure.

For the second straight season, Florida's road to the national championship goes through South Carolina. Last season the Gamecocks swept the Gators in the best-of-three championship series for their second straight national title.

"It's one of those … we've got to take it how the bracket worked out, and we've got to take it as another game," junior catcher Mike Zunino said. "We just try to play the best baseball that we can and not fall into that hype."

The Gators and Gamecocks have met four times this season, most recently in the SEC tournament. The Gators are 3-1, but seeing South Carolina again isn't all that unexpected.

"I was excited," Florida pitcher Greg Larson said. "They've had a great run, and just thinking back to last year, I thought we were going to run into them sooner or later. So why not the first game in Omaha?"

The Gamecocks know how to win in the postseason. They have won 21 consecutive NCAA tournament games.

Florida and South Carolina are the only teams to play in the final World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium and first two at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. Each is familiar with the field (for example, centerfield is 408 feet away) and know what to expect, which could be an advantage over the other six teams.

"As a hitter, you have to take your singles," Florida pitcher/DH Brian Johnson said. "You're not trying to hit too big and hit the ball out.

"As a pitcher, you just want to throw to contact because you know if you can get the ball in play … it's a big field. It just plays big."

The Gamecocks aren't ready to let their run end. And although they began the season with a lot of inexperienced players, they now consider themselves an experienced team.

"Our guys don't think that they're unbeatable by any stretch of the imagination," coach Ray Tanner said. "They do think we have a chance. It's confidence, but it's not arrogance. It's respect for the other team and perspective.

"Have we been lucky? Has it been a tremendous run? Absolutely. But it's simple for our guys. It's about let's go play and get in position to win the game and keep it simple. That's kind of the way they are. We've been lucky."

Perhaps, but also very good.

Johnson (8-4, 3.56 ERA), who did not start in last season's World Series because of a concussion, will do so tonight. And he faces one of the SEC's best in Michael Roth (7-1, 2.50 ERA)

For Preston Tucker, the senior and former Plant High standout, this is the final shot at a title. The same goes for the many juniors drafted last week. Asked how he'd like to be remembered, Tucker, who holds numerous school records, thought for a moment then responded: "As a champion."

 
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