Both schools know what it is like to be No. 1 in the country, but the University of Tampa and Florida Southern have rarely played each other with this much on the line: No. 1 vs. No. 2.
"Isn't it great?" Tampa rightfielder Mike Zerbe said of this No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, which occurred once before in 1991. "I can't wait to get in there for a few games with the top two ranked teams. Not many players ever get to do that."
The three-game series begins tonight at 7 as top-ranked Tampa (21-6) hosts No. 2 Florida Southern (25-4). The Mocs will host the second game Saturday at 7 p.m. in Lakeland, and the series will wrap up at 3 p.m. on Sunday at Sam Bailey Field.
"These games are always intense," Zerbe said, "but they are just that much more intense this time because of the rankings."
If anybody knows about intensity, it is Zerbe, a senior who plays every game as if it might be his last, or maybe like he wants it to be his last.
Consider last week: On three consecutive days, Zerbe leaped over a chain-link fence to catch a popup, bruised his right tricep in a collision with centerfielder Erik Mirza (but still caught the ball), enflamed the busa-sac under his left arm while diving for another ball, and pulled his hamstring during a workout.
"But none of those injuries will stop me from playing," Zerbe said, "especially this weekend."
Or any weekday, especially considering Tampa was leading by more than five runs in later innings when he sacrificed his body to make those plays.
"(Zerbe) has no respect for his body," said grinning UT coach Terry Rupp, who is reknowned for his intensity. "I like the way he goes all out on every play. The other players see a guy like Zerbe laying out for flyballs and then I think it kind of catches on. The next thing you know, a lot of the other players are also laying themselves out to catch balls."
Zerbe grew up playing for Citrus Park Little League and for Gaither High, where he had success but not enough to land a Division I scholarship.
"I had a few offers from some junior colleges and some northern Division II schools, but nothing major," Zerbe said. "That's when I decided just to go for it at Tampa. I knew Tampa had a great tradition and I thought I might be able to walk on and work myself onto the team."
His first season, Zerbe got no scholarship money and eight at-bats. But things picked up the next two years as he hit 17 homers, collected 58 RBI and was a main cog in last season's team that finished fifth in the country.
"This season Zerbe has really found his place," Rupp said. "We always knew he had the ability and the power, but his pitch selection wasn't that good. We've been talking about it and he's finally gotten to where he isn't chasing so many bad pitches."
The end results have been a .348 average with a team-high four homers and 20 RBI, which ranks second among the Spartans.
"I hope I can catch some (major-league) attention with a really strong season," Zerbe said. "I love playing this game and I would love the opportunity to get paid for playing baseball. I can't imagine anything better than that."