Gators reassert themselves as title contenders - WSVN-TV - 7NEWS Miami Ft. Lauderdale News, Weather, Deco

Gators reassert themselves as title contenders

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By STEVE MEGARGEE
AP Sports Writer

Florida has bounced back from a disappointing 2013 baseball campaign to regain its customary status as a Southeastern Conference heavyweight and national title contender.

The Gators (33-16, 18-6 SEC) have won 11 straight conference games to tie a 46-year-old school record. Florida had won six straight games overall before falling 4-2 to Mercer on Tuesday.

Florida owns a three-game advantage over Mississippi in the overall league standings and is four games up on defending league regular-season champion Vanderbilt in the Eastern Division. Florida hosts Vanderbilt (36-13, 14-10) in a three-game series beginning Thursday.

"Everyone's doing well," junior second baseman Casey Turgeon said. "Everyone's feeling good about themselves. That's where you've got to be, to win games and stuff. I'd say it's a good vibe right now."

The Gators' surge represents quite a change from last year, when Florida finished 29-30 despite making a sixth straight NCAA regional appearance.

Florida is one of several SEC teams showing marked improvement this season. Tennessee (28-18) and Georgia (23-23-1) already have exceeded their win totals from last season. Alabama has gone from 35-28 last season to 31-18 this year. Texas A&M's gone from 34-29 in 2013 to 30-19 this season.

But the Gators have made the biggest rise of all in going from a losing record to atop the league standings.

"Last year was pressure-filled because we wanted to just make a regional and keep that streak going," Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "But this is a much different circumstance this year. We want to win the SEC, we want to host regionals and we're fighting to be one of those eight national seeds. So the circumstances are different, but we like being in this position. That's what our players come here for."

Florida's hitting statistics in 2013 and 2014 are virtually identical. The Gators are averaging 4.9 runs per game with a team batting average of .271 and an on-base percentage of .349. Florida scored 4.8 runs per game last year with a .269 average and a .347 on-base percentage.

The difference is in the pitching. Florida's team ERA is 3.23, down from 3.92 last season. That pitching has helped Florida post a 13-6 record in one-run games. The Gators were 7-10 in one-run games last year.

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Here are five other SEC teams to keep an eye on heading into the final stages of the regular season.

ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks' string of 12 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances could be in some jeopardy. Arkansas (30-20, 11-13 SEC) was 54th in the RPI released this week despite owning a 2.35 ERA that ranks second in the conference. The Razorbacks can boost their NCAA hopes by winning their last two SEC series against Texas A&M and at Missouri.

GEORGIA: The Bulldogs snapped an eight-game losing streak and revived their postseason hopes last weekend by winning a series from South Carolina for the first time since 2008. Georgia has come a long way since going 21-32 last season, but the Bulldogs have little margin for error in their attempt to avoid being left out of the SEC tournament.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: One year ago, Mississippi State went on a torrid late-season run to get all the way to the College World Series championship round. A weekend sweep of Auburn indicates the Bulldogs might be ready to make a late push again. The Bulldogs outscored Auburn 18-1 in three games. Mississippi State (31-18, 14-10) is one game behind Mississippi (35-14, 15-9) in the Western Division.

TENNESSEE: After posting losing records five of the last six seasons, Tennessee is in position to earn its first NCAA tournament berth since a 2005 College World Series appearance. But it won't be easy. The Volunteers visit Mississippi State and host Florida in their last two SEC series. They didn't help their cause Tuesday by falling 7-5 to UNC Asheville, which entered the game with a 12-32 record. "This really puts our backs against the wall," Tennessee coach Dave Serrano said.

VANDERBILT: Last year's regular-season conference champion got off to an 8-10 start in league play this year, but the Commodores have heated up lately. Vanderbilt had won seven straight games before losing 11-7 to Louisville on Tuesday.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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