Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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."

Friday's results

UCLA 9, Stony Brook 1

Arizona 4, Florida State 3, 12 innings

Today's other game

Kent State vs. Arkansas, 5

Sunday's games

Stony Brook vs. Florida State, 5

UCLA vs. Arizona, 9

Pressure only increases for Florida Gators baseball at College World Series 06/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 16, 2012 1:31am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. For starters: Rays at Twins, looking for another with Odorizzi starting


    UPDATE, 12:45: Cash said Robertson was taking better swings Friday and so he wanted to move him up today, liking the idea of having three straight right-handers vs. a LHP they don't know much about. ... Souza was still smiling this morning about his failed dive attempt last night, and the reaction it got. .. The …

  2. Why the Lightning would consider trading Jonathan Drouin

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — This summer, the Lightning could trade one of its most dynamic young players ever.

    Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Jonathan Drouin (27) celebrates with his team on the bench after beating Chicago Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling (33) to score his second goal of the period and to tie the score at 4 to 4 during second period action at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Monday evening (03/27/17).
  3. Why the Lightning should keep Jonathan Drouin

    Lightning Strikes

    Keep him.

    Jonathan Drouin is live bait. The Lightning is ready to run the hook through him and cast him out there again. Drouin has enough talent for the Lightning to meet some defensive needs in a deal.

    Keep him.

    Lightning wing Jonathan Drouin celebrates after beating Los Angeles Kings goalie Peter Budaj during the first period of Tuesday's win in Tampa. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
  4. This Tampa Bay Lightning wing rides the newest wave of fan interaction

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — There are photos of Lightning fan Shaun Egger as a toddler at center ice at the then-Thunderome, aka Tropicana Field. He's played in the Lightning's high school hockey league for Palm Harbor University. But his closest personal encounter with players had been waving through a crowd after a training camp …

    Tampa Bay Lightning player J.T. Brown wears his anti UV glasses as he talks over the headset with a hockey fan while they play against each other on line in an XBOX NHL video game in Brown's game room at his home in south Tampa. The fan chose to be the Washington Capitals and Brown, of course, was the Tampa Bay Lightning. Brown interacts with fans through video game systems as he streams the games live on Twitch with plans for the proceeds to go to charity.
  5. ‘Biggest fight' behind her, Petra Kvitova returns ahead of schedule


    PARIS — Five months after a home invader's knife sliced into her left hand, Petra Kvitova will return to competitive tennis at the French Open, a last-minute decision to make her comeback earlier than expected.

    Petra Kvitova adjusts her hair during a news conference at Roland Garros Stadium, where she will make her tennis return at the French Open. Kvitova's left hand was badly injured by a knife-wielding intruder in December; she has recovered ahead of schedule. [Associated Press]