College World Series 2011: Previewing Florida Gators In Omaha

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 12: Florida Gators mascot Albert entertains fans during their game against the Vanderbilt Commodores in the semifinals of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at Georgia Dome on March 12, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Florida Gators baseball team is the No. 2 national seed due to its all-around depth in the starting rotation, the lineup, and in the bullpen. They have a tough test ahead of them in Texas, but they have the horses to handle it.

In their six games in the NCAA Baseball Tournament, the Florida Gators have scored 55 runs. Their pitching has been solid, but it hasn't had to be in most of their games. They scored 17 runs in their first game, 11 runs in their final Regional game, and 11 runs in their final Super Regional game, and they will look to carry that momentum into the College World Series. Slowing down the No. 2 overall seed has been tough for opponents so far. 

Still, Mississippi State almost took down the mighty Gators in the Super Regional, despite that offense and the fact that Florida beat them three out of four times in the regular season. Hopefully for Gators fans, those struggles were a bit of a wake-up call for their immensely talented team. Florida are in their second straight College World Series after winning their series against the Bulldogs last weekend, but they were finally shown to be mortal ahead of their tough test against Texas.

Nick Vickerson hit a walk-off home run in Game 2 of the Super Regional for Mississippi State to force Game 3, in which MSU led for a good period of the game, seriously pushing Florida. Surprisingly, they actually missed Brian Johnson, who was out with a concussion, and their bullpen lost its dominant edge.  

That bullpen's play before the last two games of the Super Regional is probably more indicative of their quality than that two game sample size, even if those were the two most important games of Florida's season. Nick Maronde and Greg Larson are both fantastic relievers with ERAs well below 2.50, while Tommy Toledo and Steven Rodriguez are also incredibly reliable. That deep bullpen, along with the extended format of the College World Series compared to earlier rounds of the tournament, will mask any problems they had associated with the loss of Johnson.

Since Johnson hasn't been definitively ruled in or out of the CWS at this point, Florida could also have one of the best groups of starting pitchers at the tournament. The two other players who will certainly make starts are Hudson Randall and Karsten Whitson, both of whom have fantastic stuff and sub-2.50 ERAs. If Johnson isn't able to go and Kevin O'Sullivan doesn't want to risk pitching Randall on short rest, Alex Panteliodis will make an appearance. He's competent, but he has a 3.95 ERA and he struggled against Mississippi State on Sunday. O'Sullivan would probably like to avoid starting Panteliodis if possible.

In case Florida's pitching is substandard, they have their aforementioned great offensive to rely on. SEC Player of the Year Mike Zunino has been spectacular so far in the NCAA Tournament, while fellow slugger Preston Tucker hasn't been half bad either. Six of the Gators who are expected to start against Texas hit .300 or better and their team has averaged nearly 10 runs per game over the course of the season. They will have their hands full with Taylor Jungmann in their first game against Texas, but the Longhorns star looked a bit shaky against Arizona State.

The Gators have a strong lineup, a couple of sluggers, some great starting pitching, an incredibly deep bullpen and the experience of having played in Omaha just one year ago. Six of the other seven top national seeds have made the College World Series along with Florida, so it might be a minor stretch to call them favorites, but they have every chance to make it to the Championship series. If they can get past Jungmann and Texas in Game 1, the sky is the limit.

Probable starters for opening two games

Hudson Randall, Karsten Whitson - Both have been solid, but not spectacular in their starts so far in the NCAA Tournament. Randall has the experience of having been here before, while Whitson has spectacular stuff indicative of someone with a possible future in the bigs. The Randall-Jungmann duel should be great, and Whitson will likely be favored in his Game 2 matchup.

Key player

Mike Zunino - The SEC Player of the Year has played up to his reputation in the postseason thus far. He appears to be on a completely different level than everyone else for hitting right now, and there's no reason to believe he's going to slump.

Prediction

Anything can happen in a bracket with four teams as good as Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Vanderbilt, but the Gators are the best equipped team to get to the Championship series on paper, especially if Brian Johnson is cleared to play.

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