Gushue gets early start on UF career

When Taylor Gushue was six years old, he saw Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves switch-hitting. Intrigued, Gushue went to his backyard and spent countless hours batting left-handed off a tee until he became proficient from either side.

When Gushue was a sixth-grader at Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he started getting varsity at-bats. By his freshman year of high school -- his first as a starter -- he was catching Luke Jackson, a future first-round draft pick.

Gushue has always been advanced, but he's taken his skills to new heights this year. He graduated from Calvary a semester early -- a trend that has become common for football players but is rare in baseball. Gushue, though, has had no trouble adjusting and is now a starter at the University of Florida, the top-ranked team in the nation.

If all that wasn't impressive enough, the 6-2, 205-pounder launched the first collegiate pitch he saw for a home run in Florida's opener against Cal State Fullerton on Feb. 17.

"When I realized it went out, this huge smile came over me," Gushue said. "I couldn't write it any better. It was a 10 on a 10 scale."

Gregg Mucerino, who coached Gushue at Calvary, said his former star is normally low-key.

"But when I saw him pumping his fist as he was rounding the bases, I knew he had embraced this challenge of graduating early and playing for Florida," Mucerino said. "In hindsight, had he stayed for his senior season, I don't think he'd be having this kind of year."

Mucerino said Gushue's story seems too good to be true sometimes.

"It's like a movie," he said. "First pitch, he drops the bat head and jumps the gate."

Where this "movie" goes from here, no one knows, but Gushue certainly has the look of a future first-round pick and a potential major-leaguer.

On March 3, he hit two homers against his hometown Miami Hurricanes and was named SEC Freshman of the Week for the second time in the season's first month.

Then again, Gushue has always been able to hit the long ball. He hit 31 homers at Calvary, including one that cleared the fence and sailed through the goal posts on the adjoining field at Coral Springs High -- a blast Mucerino estimates at 420 feet.

He had become such a force in high school, few teams were pitching to him -- Gushue drew 61 walks in just 189 plate appearances in his final two years at Calvary.

For his prep career, Gushue hit .428 in 297 at-bats and set school records for home runs, RBI (130), walks (94), on-base percentage (.559) and slugging (865).

"I don't want to say he was bored with the high school level," Mucerino said. "But there was no challenge to it for Taylor."

While football and volleyball early graduates participate in spring practice, they don't play in actual games before their classmates. Baseball players such as Gushue -- and a few others who pioneered the trend -- skip their senior seasons and compete in college right away.

College coaches are hoping this becomes a trend because it protects their recruits from the pro draft until their junior year.

In other words, Gushue gave up a shot at this year's draft and will instead become eligible in 2014. It's a trade his father will take any day.

"It's an honor to get drafted," said Fred Gushue, the director of facilities at Calvary Chapel. "But we were looking beyond the draft. What is the path to becoming a better person and also getting to the major leagues?

"In the minors, you are not socializing. You are getting on a bus, playing the game and going back to your hotel."

Fred Gushue said he also liked the idea of his son learning from star Florida catcher Mike Zunino, a likely high-round pick this June. Gushue has gotten most of his starts at first base or DH while watching how Zunino operates behind the plate.

"At Florida, you are playing for a national championship and playing in front of 6,000 fans a night," Fred Gushue said. "And in the summer, Taylor can go to Cape Cod or another top league and continue to improve."