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Monday February 18, 2013 Baseball rewind: Powers' power surge, O'Sullivan on more strikes, Dent opens strong, more tidbits

Updated: 8:56am, April 18

Florida baseball

The Gators took two out of three against Duke to open the 2013 season over the weekend.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The No. 13-ranked Gators’ season-opening series against Duke ended up a successful one following a pair of tight games on Friday and Saturday.

The Gators dropped the opener 4-3 on Friday and came back to even the series with a 4-2 victory on Saturday. The bats finally woke up on Sunday as the Gators rallied for 14 runs in their last three at-bats for a 16-5 victory. The victory extended Florida’s streak of taking the opening series to six consecutive years since Kevin O’Sullivan took over the program in 2008.

O’Sullivan spent most of the cooler-than-normal weekend (weather and Florida’s bats) perched on the top dugout step as the tense action unfolded at McKethan Stadium. When the Gators erupted for four runs in the sixth inning Sunday on redshirt sophomore Zack Powers’ grand slam, O’Sullivan could relax a tad.

“All in all, we needed an inning like that,’’ he said afterward. “We had been kind of scraping by all weekend.”

Powers wasn’t done showing off his power, becoming the first player in school history to hit grand slams in back-to-back innings when he did it again in the seventh inning. Former Gators outfielder Preston Tucker is the only other player to hit two grand slams in one game, a feat he accomplished in 2008 when he homered three times against UCF – adding a three-run homer sandwiched by a pair of slams.

The Gators are off Monday but return to action Tuesday night at UCF and at home Wednesday against Georgia Southern.

Despite losing the season opener for the first time under O’Sullivan, coming back to win the series was an important step for a Gators team that lost nine regulars from last year’s team to the MLB draft.

“It’s a big deep breath for everybody,’’ reliever Ryan Harris said. “We’ve got a young team. They got in there and got their first weekend and we did well. I think we’re getting ready to start hitting our stride.”

*****

Anytime a player hits a grand slam, it’s notable due to the rarity of slams. Consider this: Florida led the nation in home runs last season with 75, but didn’t hit a grand slam.

And then Powers, who had never homered in 68 at-bats for the Gators, hit two slams in back-to-back trips to the plate.

Zack Powers

“It’s great to be back and playing. To have a game like this is special,’’ Powers said. “The first time up I was just trying to get a base hit. The second time I got kind of greedy and wanted to go for it.”

Powers (photo, left) missed most of his freshman season in 2011 due to a torn meniscus. And then as a sophomore, Powers was redshirted after suffering a labrum injury. Finally healthy, the former standout at Armwood High could be seeing a lot more time in the lineup after Sunday’s nine-RBI performance – Powers had a run-scoring sacrifice fly in the sixth inning.

“I’m just pleased he’s healthy and contributing the way we knew he could,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He’s a baseball player. We need to obviously get his bat in the lineup.”’

*****

One stat O’Sullivan didn’t like from the weekend was that Florida’s starters faced only 46 batters while the bullpen faced 66.

The starting rotation of Jonathon Crawford, Tucker Simpson and Justin Shafer combined to pitch only 10 1/3 innings, surrendering eight hits and six runs for a 5.23 ERA. They walked five and struck out seven.

While Crawford made 14 starts a year ago, Simpson and Shafer were making their first career starts with expected No. 2 starter Karsten Whitson sidelined for the season due to shoulder issues.

“I wasn’t real pleased with how our starters threw,’’ O’Sullivan said. “They’ve got to get better. You can’t be going to the bullpen in the third and fourth inning. I know we are on a pitch count, but they’ve got to get better. Our starting pitching was fair at best this weekend.”

O’Sullivan said that he won’t hesitate to tinker with the rotation to get more production and save the bullpen from extended outings. The bullpen did its job, limiting the Blue Devils to five runs (two earned) in 16 2/3 innings over the three-game series.

Harris was Florida’s busiest reliever, pitching 4 2/3 shutout innings over two games and giving up just two hits.

Another concern O’Sullivan emphasized was that he wants to see the pitching staff be more aggressive in coming right at hitters, one of Florida’s strengths in recent years. The Gators issued five leadoff walks to Duke.

“You can’t just keep doing that. It’s like a turnover in other sports. It does lead to big innings,’’ O’Sullivan said. “There is only so many times you can go to the well before you fall in. If guys aren’t going to get ahead and do the things we taught them, we’ve got plenty of options, simple as that.”

*****Cody Dent

Senior Cody Dent has spent most of his career playing the infield and as a late-inning defensive replacement.

However, Dent opened the season as Florida’s starting center fielder and showed signs the position might be a good fit.

Dent handled his 10 chances defensively without an error and some tweaks in the offseason to his approach at the plate helped Dent go 3-for-8 with a double and two RBIs in the series.

A career .180 hitter, Dent is two RBIs short of already matching his total from last season. He said he made a small tweak to his leg kick that helps him stay back in the batter’s box that seems to be making a difference.

“I get timed up for a fastball,’’ Dent said. “I was getting stopped [my old way]. My rhythm was getting interrupted.”

Dent hit in the ninth hole against Duke but if he continues to hit well, that could change according to O’Sullivan.

*****

The Gators committed just 59 errors in 67 games last season and strong defense has been a staple of the program since O’Sullivan took over.

That was not the case in the three-game series against Duke as Florida made eight errors. Sophomore catcher Tyler Gushue committed four of those, three of them throwing errors on stolen-base attempts. In Gushue’s defense, two of the throws looked playable by Florida’s middle infielders but sailed into the outfield.

Shortstop Richie Martin and second baseman Casey Turgeon had fielding errors on Friday, and in Sunday’s game right fielder Vickash Ramjit, normally a sure-handed defender at first base, made two errors.

O’Sullivan doesn’t expect the uncharacteristic drops to continue and viewed the miscues more of an anomaly than anything else.

“I know we didn’t play great defense this weekend, but I’m very confident that our team defensively is going to be really, really good,’’ he said. “We just are not in sync.”

NEWS OF NOTE

Florida learned late last week that junior transfer Taylor Ratliff, an infielder/outfielder who played for two seasons at Jacksonville University, was denied his waiver request by the NCAA to be eligible to play this season.

Ratliff must sit out this season and will have two years of eligibility remaining starting next season. Ratliff started 82 games the past two seasons for the Dolphins and batted .281 with one homer and 12 RBIs in 31 games last season before a hand injury caused him to miss the season’s second half.

QUOTE OF NOTE

“I don’t like to think about Preston very much because I get depressed he’s gone.” – O’Sullivan when asked if Powers’ performance reminded him of Tucker, who finished his career last season as the school’s all-time hits leader (341) and second on the career home-run list (57)

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