Starting Pitching Advantage: Miami
Eric “Easy E” Erickson and Chris Hernandez are bound to start Friday and Saturday night against the Gators as they have for the past two weekends. They both accumulated nine strikeouts in their last starts against Manhattan. Strikeouts will be much harder to come by against Florida’s lineup, but getting six solid innings out of these two would be ideal. Sunday’s start is a major question mark as Jason Santana struggled heavily last Sunday only lasting 3 1/3 innings while giving up 6 runs off 9 hits to Manhattan. Florida’s starters are uncertain at this point because the series they had canceled against La Salle twisted their rotation, but they may go with Tommy Toledo, Brian Johnson and Alex Panteliodis. The sophomore Panteliodis has not started a game this season, but he was the starter in the Canes’ 16-5 loss last season against the Gators in the Gainesville Regional a year ago. He also didn’t pitch in Tuesday’s loss to No. 3 FSU where the Gators used 8 pitchers to get through the game, making it apparent that head coach Kevin O’Sullivan is saving him for the weekend series. Toledo, a sophomore who earned a medical redshirt after missing all of last year, has made two starts this season. A key against him for the Cane hitters may be to work the counts and force him to give them something to hit being that he didn’t last very long due to his pitch count in his first outing of the year vs. USF despite pitching shutout baseball. Both Toledo and Johnson were part of those 8 pitchers used against Florida State, but only to face a few hitters. Florida appears to be scrambling a bit with their pitching staff while Miami knows they will, at the very least, be set for the first two games of the series.
Bullpen Advantage: Even
In UF’s Tuesday game against FSU seven players made relief appearances. Fortunately for them, they will get two days off before things get going against Miami. Junior lefty Kevin Chapman and sophomore right-hander Greg Larson are tied for the team lead in appearances (4) and have both recorded one save on the season. Chapman hasn’t given up a run while Larson has given up five however. The Gators lost last year’s closer in Billy Bullock to the draft, but they still have plenty of solid and experienced arms in that bullpen. Canes closer David Gutierrez continued his solid work Friday picking up his second save of the season. His ERA is spotless so far, but a true test of his ninth inning abilities may be showcased this weekend against a top-10 opponent. Also without giving up a run in relief this season is freshman right-hander E.J. Encinosa who has been stellar in 6 1/3 innings pitched this season. He is sporadically wild, but as long as he stays under control, he’ll be fine. Same goes for the rest of the Hurricane bullpen.
Catcher Advantage: Miami
The green and orange like having Yasmani Grandal start at catcher for the Friday and Saturday night games with David Villasuso at DH and then swapping them in the Sunday afternoon games. This combination has started all seven of the Canes games this season at either catcher or designated hitter. The two rank second and third respectively in batting average on this roster and are accounting for ample run production in the heart of this lineup. Villasuso has belted three home runs already this season and is leading the team in RBI; meanwhile, Grandal is getting the respect he deserves from opposing pitching as he gets on base in more than half of his plate appearances. The Gators employ a similar catcher-DH rotation with freshmen Mike Zunino and Austin Maddox and may also give a Sunday start at catcher to sophomore Ben McMahan. All three are respectable offensively with averages over .300 in the early goings of this season. They’re worthy adversaries, but lack the experience in big game situations that Grandal possesses.
Infield Advantage: Florida
The stars on this Florida infield are junior first baseman Preston Tucker and sophomore second baseman Josh Adams. The two killed the Canes in the Gainesville Regional last season, especially in the final 16-5 game where they combined to get on base 9 of 11 times. Adams has gotten off to a stellar start to match his 2009 campaign, but Tucker has been subpar for his standards, only driving in one run thus far. He is due, and unfortunately for the Canes, it might come this weekend. The infield is rounded out by two newcomers on the left side of it. True freshman shortstop Nolan Fontana and junior college transfer Bryson Smith at third base are two players that highlight this past offseason’s No. 1 recruiting class for UF. The firepower for the Canes infield is provided predominantly through senior second baseman Scott Lawson and sophomore third baseman Harold Martinez. Martinez is tied with Villasuso for the team lead in homers and both he and Lawson have concocted an OPS that easily exceeds 1.000. Freshman Stephen Perez has been a constant for the Hurricanes at short and hitting in the top of the lineup, but Miami has struggled to find production from a fourth infielder. They’ve tried starting Ryan Perry at first, then moving Lawson to first while allowing Frankie Ratcliff to play second, and have most recently utilized Rony Rodriguez at first leaving everyone else in their natural position. None of these three have put together batting averages above the Mendoza Line (.200); this needs to change against fierce competition like the Florida Gators.
Outfield Advantage: Florida
The Miami outfield has certainly impressed as of late. Ever since the freshman out of Ft. Lauderdale Michael Broad was inserted into the starting lineup four games ago he’s gone 6 for 12. He’s been a pleasant surprise along with Chris Pelaez, who has done nothing but hit since he transferred to the U from Miami-Dade College. If he can continue to hit anywhere in the vicinity of that .650 AVG he’s put together so far, the Canes will be in great shape. The freshman and starting center fielder provides stability in the outfield and has recently been moved up to lead-off man. Unfortunately for Miami, Florida is very talented at these positions as well. Senior Matt den Dekker has been phenomenal this season leading his team in hitting and runs scored. The speedster has also continued his trend of base-stealing efficiency. He’s 2 for 2 on steal attempts this year; a year ago, he stole 17 bases and was only caught once. Sophomore Tyler Thompson has made four starts out of the six games this season and has gotten his AVG up to .353. The Pigott brothers, senior Jonathan and sophomore Daniel, will also get their fair share of playing time while down here in Coral Gables.
Intangibles Advantage: Even
You can bet your life savings on the fact that the returning Canes who had to suffer two devastating postseason losses to this very team last spring are going to spill their hearts out for these three games, looking to avenge their losses. Notwithstanding losing to them in the postseason, Miami did have success against this team last year in the regular season as they swept a three-game set from them up in Gainesville around this time last year. This series will be played at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field, but despite the home-field-advantage, you can expect a high turnout of Gator fans in the stands. This weekend marks the beginning of spring break for the University of Florida and I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of Gators come down to Coral Gables to catch some premium college baseball action while hitting up the beach in between.
Justin Antweil may be contacted at email@example.com.