Florida (14-7; 2-1) at Texas A&M (15-7; 1-2)
After a disappointing series loss to open SEC play last week on the road at Auburn, the Fightin' Texas Aggies will return home and welcome the Florida Gators to Olsen Field. The Gators and Aggies will be squaring off on a weekend for the first time since A&M joined the SEC, although the Aggies did eliminate the Gators from last year's SEC Tournament. A&M holds a 7-1 record in the all-time series between the two schools.
The Gators come to College Station on a pretty nice streak, having won 8 of their last 9 games including a series win against Arkansas last weekend and a big midweek victory over a highly ranked Florida State team. Florida has a bit of uncertainty in their starting rotation, as their Sunday starter is listed as TBD and their Saturday starter made his first start of the season last weekend after moving from the bullpen.
On the other side of things, Coach Rob Childress has decided to make a rotation change. Maybe he reads my articles?! Doubt it. Regardless, Childress is keeping Daniel Mengden on Friday but moving Grayson Long up to Saturday, bumping the struggling Parker Ray out of a weekend role, and bringing in Tyler Stubblefield to start on Sunday. This is a big opportunity for the Aggies to get things back on track against a solid and hot Florida team, but it all starts with the pitching staff setting the tone. A&M has certainly had their struggles as far as hitting is concerned - and those have been well documented - but the Gators have not been much more successful in that department this season either.
Friday (6:35pm CT)
RHP Logan Shore (1-1, 0.68, 0.91, 21 K, 4 BB)
RHP Daniel Mengden (2-3, 3.12, 1.07, 39 K, 11 BB)
Logan Shore has been a bright spot for the Gators' pitching staff this season. The true freshman from Minnesota has allowed just 2 earned runs in over 26 innings of work over 5 starts. Shore, much like Grayson Long, has been the unfortunate recipient of limited run support and finally picked up his first win of the season last Friday against Arkansas. Shore tossed 6.1 innings in that game and scattered 7 hits and 2 walks to allow just 1 run while striking out 5 Razorback hitters.
Mengden again struggled early on last Friday against Auburn. In what is becoming a bit of a concerning trend, Mengden didn't seem to have his best stuff to start the game and didn't get into a groove until the Aggies were already down 3-0. The Tigers scored 2 runs in the 1st and 1 in the 2nd off Mengden, and the damage could have certainly been worse. Daniel finished with 7.2 innings pitched and allowed 4 runs on 9 hits and 2 walks along with 4 strikeouts. The Aggies really need Mengden to have his best stuff from start to finish in order to set the tone for the weekend.
Saturday (2:05pm CT)
RHP Eric Hanhold (3-1, 1.93, 1.02, 16 K, 8 BB)
RHP Grayson Long (2-0, 0.26, 0.94, 22 K, 10 BB)
Eric Hanhold - a sophomore from Palm Harbor, FL - made his first start of the season last Saturday against Arkansas and earned the win that would clinch the series victory for the Gators. Hanhold pitched 5 scoreless innings against the Razorbacks and allowed just 2 hits and 2 walks to go along with 2 strikeouts. Prior to that start, Hanhold had made 10 appearances out of the Gators' bullpen this season and had allowed 4 runs in just under 14 innings of work. Hanhold has managed to hold opponents to a batting average of just .177 in over 18 total innings pitched.
Considering the way Grayson Long has pitched through 5 starts this season, it seemed inevitable that he would force Rob Childress to move him up in the rotation. Indeed, the decision was made this week to bump the struggling Parker Ray into the bullpen/midweek starter role and slot Grayson into the Saturday spot. Grayson has undoubtedly been the best starting pitcher for A&M so far this season, allowing just 1 run in 34 innings and holding opponents to a batting average of just .183. Last Saturday, Grayson helped the Aggies avoid the sweep against Auburn by tossing a career-high 8 innings of shutout baseball, scattering 7 hits and a walk and adding 7 strikeouts.
Sunday (1:05pm CT)
RHP Tyler Stubblefield (2-0, 1.84, 1.18, 37 K, 8 BB)
Florida has elected not to list their starter yet for the third game of this series, as they have not had any consistency in this spot so far this season. The Gators gave this start last weekend against Arkansas to freshman A.J. Puk but he gave up 4 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks in just 2 innings of work. Puk finds his ERA north of the 5.00 mark in 6 appearances - 3 starts. Bobby Poyner could potentially be an option to start, but he did toss 3 innings on Tuesday to close out the win over Florida State and earn a save.
The rotation shakeup that moved Grayson Long from Sunday to Saturday has led to true freshman Tyler Stubblefield being moved up from the midweek starter role into the Sunday spot. Stubblefield has been excellent for most of the 2014 season, but he did struggle a bit earlier this week against Columbia. Tyler only pitched 2 innings on Tuesday against Columbia and allowed 3 earned runs on 5 hits and a walk, but prior to that appearance he had only allowed 3 earned runs through 27 innings. It will be important for Stubblefield to try and stay ahead of hitters and stay mentally focused if runners do get on base.
What to Watch
Based on the numbers we are about to see, i would not be the slightest bit surprised to see a mostly low-scoring 3 game series between a pair of clubs that simply do not score a lot of runs. In fact, Florida has scored more than 4 runs just 3 times over their last 16 games. As you can see below, A&M does actually lead in the majority of hitting statistics when comparing these 2 teams.
Similar to the Aggies, the Gators have relied heavily on their pitching staff to carry them to victories so far in the 2014 season. Although their weekend rotation has been a bit in flux recently, they do have a number of very solid options out of the bullpen. RHP Ryan Harris leads Florida with 3 saves so far on the season and has allowed only 1 earned run in 12.1 innings of work while allowing opponents to hit for a batting average of only .154. RHP Aaron Rhodes leads all Florida pitchers who have not started a game in the category of innings pitched (21.0). Rhodes has picked up a pair of saves in 10 appearances and currently has an ERA of 2.14. As for how the 2 teams compare from a pitching standpoint overall...
Here is my best guess at the lineup that the Gators will feature this weekend.
The first thing that jumps out at me about the Gators' lineup is that, while they only have one true left-handed hitter, they have more switch-hitters than I'm used to seeing in a lineup. C/1B/DH Braden Mattson - a junior from San Antonio - leads the team in batting average and has the highest on-base percentage among those with 20 or more at bats. C/DH Taylor Gushue is Florida's main power threat. Gushue, a junior from Boca Raton, leads the team in doubles, home runs, RBI, total bases, and slugging percentage (among those with at least 20 at bats). Florida is not a team that steals a lot of bases, but SS Richie Martin leads the team in that category with nearly half of their total amount. Martin does, however, also lead the Gators with the most errors committed (8) this season. The return of sophomore OF Harrison Bader from suspension last Sunday was a big boost for the Gators, and in the 2 games he's played he has 3 hits in 8 at bats with a double, a triple and an RBI. Bader led the team last season in batting average (.314) as a freshman, but was suspended prior to the start of the season after crashing a scooter into a parked truck on a Saturday night, with alcohol (obviously) being involved.
This is a tough one for a number of reasons. First, it's hard to say exactly how the rotation changes will play out for A&M. I'd like to think that moving Grayson Long to Saturday gives you a better chance of potentially taking the series, but that is going to require Daniel Mengden to step up and pitch like the ace he is. I'm also a bit worried about how Tyler Stubblefield is going to pitch after his rough outing on Tuesday.
On top of that, Florida does come to College Station on a pretty impressive hot streak, including that midweek win over a very good Florida State team. Although on paper this team may not look to be a whole lot better than A&M is, the games are not played on paper. Given the Aggies continued struggles at the plate, I am having a very hard time convincing myself that they are capable of winning a series against a tough SEC opponent who has a pretty good pitching staff and is playing some quality baseball right now.
So, I'm picking the Gators in this one. I'll go with A&M winning the Saturday game behind Grayson Long sandwiched by a pair of Florida wins on Friday and Sunday. I certainly hope I'm wrong on this one, as A&M very badly needs to win this series and get back on track. Winning Friday's game would be huge for the Aggies, as getting a sweep would suddenly very much come into play and that would be massive for this team.