Florida finally is ready to finish the job.
That job, of course, is returning to the College World Series for the first time since it played Texas for the national title in 2005.
The Gators stormed through the Gainesville Regional last season with a pair of wins against Miami. They also were the heavy favorite in the Gainesville Super Regional against Southern Mississippi. The series, though, didn't go as planned, and the Gators lost to the Golden Eagles in two games.
The Eagles – not the Gators – made the trip to Omaha, Neb.
With that memory still fresh on their minds, the Gators enter the weekend series against Miami with a plethora of motivation.
The setting is similar this season. The Gators dominated the Gainesville Regional and once again are expected to reach the CWS.
Florida has the edge on the mound, at the plate and especially in the field. Miami, though, is a historic program that routinely knows what it takes to win in the postseason. The Hurricanes must play better defense and have their weekend rotation rise to the occasion to win the series.
The Gators took two of three on the road from the Hurricanes earlier this season. Can the Hurricanes return the favor, or will Florida finally be headed back to Omaha?
Florida is the pick this weekend.
|Gainesville Super Regional: Who has the edge?|
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Miami has several pitchers to watch this weekend, but without left-handed starting pitcher Eric Erickson, Florida definitely has the upper hand.
The Hurricanes have one of the best starting pitchers in the business in left-hander Chris Hernandez. Hernandez is 10-3 with a 2.77 ERA in 97 1/3 innings. He has struck out 106 and walked 32, and teams are hitting him at a .229 clip.
Miami also relied on David Gutierrez (5.12 ERA) for a start in the Coral Gables Regional last weekend, while Eric Whaley (4.28 ERA) started a pair of games for the Hurricanes.
In the bullpen, keep an eye on Daniel Miranda, E.J. Encinosa and Sam Robinson.
Miranda has appeared in 33 games and has a 3.35 ERA in 45 2/3 innings. Encinosa has appeared in 29 games and has a 2.20 ERA in 49 innings, and Robinson, who was fantastic in relief against Texas A&M in the regional title game, has appeared in 29 games and has a fantastic 1.27 ERA in 28 1/3 innings.
The Hurricanes could fare well this weekend if their rotation steps up.
As with the offense, the big key to Florida's pitching staff is quality depth.
The Gators have a solid weekend rotation, but most impressive is the fact they have a plethora of very talented arms.
Starting pitchers Hudson Randall, Alex Panteliodis and Brian Johnson lead the way. Randall is 8-3 with a 2.97 ERA in 88 innings. He has struck out 63 and walked 19, and teams are hitting .274 off him. Panteliodis is 10-2 with a 3.39 ERA in 87 2/3 innings. Teams are hitting just .240 against him. Johnson, meanwhile, is 6-4 with a 3.97 ERA in 70 1/3 innings. He has struck out 48 and walked 14, and teams are hitting .289 off him.
Also keep an eye on Florida's excellent bullpen, which is showcased by Kevin Chapman, Jeff Barfield and Greg Larson.
Chapman was a fourth-round selection of the Royals in the MLB draft earlier this week. He has recorded 11 saves in 29 appearances and has a 1.28 ERA in 42 1/3 innings. He also has struck out 42 and walked seven, and teams are hitting just .179 off him.
Barfield has appeared in 23 games and has a 3.44 ERA in 34 innings, and Larson has appeared in 23 games and has a 5.96 ERA in 35 1/3 innings.
Also keep an eye on Tommy Toledo (4.21 ERA) this weekend.
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Miami and Florida don't carry ultra-productive offensive lineups into the Gainesville Super Regional this weekend, but both clubs have the ability to get on a tear. They also have opportunistic tendencies.
Miami had a fantastic weekend at the plate in the Coral Gables Regional and enters the series with a .298 batting average. Florida also is coming off a great weekend at the plate and has a .303 batting average.
We're giving the Gators the advantage from a depth standpoint.
Matt den Dekker, Preston Tucker and freshman Austin Maddox spearhead the Gators' lineup. Den Dekker is hitting .361 with seven doubles, three triples, 13 homers and 48 RBIs. Tucker is hitting .345 with 16 doubles, 11 homers and 46 RBIs, and Maddox is hitting .339 with 15 doubles, 17 homers and 68 RBIs.
Also keep an eye on Brian Johnson, Tyler Thompson, Mike Zunino and Josh Adams.
Johnson, a two-way star, is hitting .411 in 73 at-bats this season. Thompson had a fantastic showing in the Gainesville Regional and is hitting .297 with five homers. Zunino is hitting .280 with nine homers, and Adams has power potential with eight homers and 41 RBIs.
The Hurricanes don't have the quality depth that UF brings to the table, but they have plenty of hitters to watch this weekend, including Yasmani Grandal, Chris Pelaez and Harold Martinez. Scott Lawson and Michael Broad also had good showings in the Coral Gables Regional.
Grandal is having a fabulous campaign and enters the series hitting .411 with 11 homers and 58 RBIs. Pelaez is hitting .314 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs, and Martinez is hitting .398 with 21 homers and 69 RBIs. Lawson and Broad, who are red hot, enter the series hitting .303 and .358, respectively.
This series could be more offensive than some might expect.
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Florida is in great shape this weekend if the theory that pitching and defense wins championships once again comes to fruition.
The Gators are one of the nation's best fielding teams with a .978 fielding percentage. Miami, though, enters the weekend with just a .969 fielding percentage.
Both clubs have very solid catchers in Yasmani Grandal (Miami) and Mike Zunino (Florida). The biggest difference is at other positions in the infield.
Florida first baseman Preston Tucker has a .989 fielding percentage. Second baseman Josh Adams has a .984 fielding percentage. Shortstop Nolan Fontana has a .989 fielding percentage, and third baseman Austin Maddox has a .949 fielding percentage.
For Miami, first baseman Scott Lawson is fielding .978. Second baseman Frankie Ratcliff is fielding .974. Shortstop Stephen Perez is fielding .959, and third baseman Harold Martinez is fielding at a horrid .876 clip.
In the outfield, keep an eye on Miami's Nathan Melendres and Florida's Matt den Dekker. Melendres made a couple of fantastic plays in the Coral Gables Regional last weekend. Den Dekker, meanwhile, is a terrific athlete who can cover a lot of ground.
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It's tough to pick against coach Jim Morris and Miami when it comes to a crucial situation in the postseason, but Florida also has an advantage in the intangibles category, too.
The Gators hosted Southern Mississippi in the Gainesville Super Regional last season but fell just short of a trip to the College World Series. To say the least, the Gators will be focused and more motivated than ever this weekend.
The Gators certainly have some youth that could cause issues this weekend. But because several players on the team went through the super regional last season, experience shouldn't be a major issue.
On top of everything else, the Gators get the luxury of playing at home.
Florida clearly is the better team. That means the Hurricanes must play much better in a road atmosphere.
That won't be easy. It also is one of many reasons the Gators should win the series.