GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A ground ball hops into the left side of the infield. Florida’s slick-fielding shortstop, Dalton Guthrie, doesn’t need to think. It’s all muscle memory now. After a quick glance, the junior dives toward the ball and smothers it with his glove before firing a throw to first base for an out.
“It just seems like every ball is the right distance away,” Guthrie says.
Guthrie has been Florida’s defensive backbone all season. He prides himself on dazzling plays in the field more than home runs. Double plays take priority over extra-base hits.
“A lot of people focus on the bat,” said Guthrie, a career .287 hitter, “but [defense] is an underappreciated part of the game that a lot of people don’t take into consideration.”
His defensive acuity is a main reason the Philadelphia Phillies selected him in the sixth round of the 2017 MLB Draft on Tuesday. Those skills will be even more important now as No. 3 seed Florida (47-18) prepares to make yet another run at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
The Gators have made it to Omaha all three years that Guthrie has been there. That’s an accomplishment in itself. The team, however, has come up short each of the last two seasons. This year, Guthrie says, is different. He says he feels Florida’s first national championship in program history is within reach.
“We still have some unfinished business,” Guthrie says.
‘The game doesn’t owe you anything’
Baseball runs in Dalton Guthrie’s blood. His dad, Mark Guthrie, pitched in the major leagues for 15 years and won a World Series title with the Minnesota Twins in 1991.
Andrea Guthrie, Mark’s wife, came to every game she could, even after her two oldest sons — Kevin and Dalton — were born. Their third son, Hayden, was born after her husband retired in 2003.
Most kids would pay attention to the game for three, maybe four innings before getting bored and wanting to play the games in the kid-friendly rooms in the stadium.
“Dalton wouldn’t leave the stands,” Andrea Guthrie said. “He wouldn’t leave to go to the bathroom. He wouldn’t leave to eat. Nothing.”
Mark Guthrie added: “That was unusual, even for those kids who do become players. That was the first time we knew he was interested.”
He also was always around good company.
Dalton Guthrie spent time roaming the locker rooms once he was older. In 2003, Mark Guthrie’s final season of professional baseball, Dalton remembers looking around the Chicago Cubs’ locker room. He looked one way and saw Sammy Sosa. He turned his head and saw outfielder Moises Alou. He scanned even more and saw pitcher Kerry Wood.
“Some big-name guys,” Dalton said.
Mark looked over to his son.
“This is pretty cool, right?” Dad asked.
Seven-year-old Dalton looked back at him, confused.
“What? What’s so cool about this?” he asked back.
In the moment, it seemed like an average day for Dalton. He often hung out in the locker room with his dad after games ended. If it was an afternoon game that had just wrapped up, Mark Guthrie would take his boys out to the field for batting practice once the stands emptied.
“It was just our normal thing, but they just loved it,” Andrea Guthrie said. “They loved baseball. They loved being around it, and they just loved playing it and being around that environment.”
Mark added: “Once I retired, which has been for a long time now, they began to realize how good they had it. It was a little bit different, but they still got an adequate amount of baseball.”
As the years progressed and Dalton Guthrie became more and more invested in the sport he grew up around, he remembered his father giving him one main piece of advice.
“The game doesn’t owe you anything,” he told his son. “You have to go out and earn everything.”
So he did. Dalton excelled while playing for Venice High School in Sarasota, Fla., helping the Indians win back-to-back state championships before being offered a spot at Florida. Once he arrived in Gainesville, he played second base for the first time in his career while eventual first-round pick Richie Martin manned shortstop.
And now, he’s leading the defense as the Gators compete for another national title.
“The competition and getting to play the best players in college baseball throughout the three years has made him a better player,” Mark Guthrie said. “It’s nice to see that he’s able to rise to the occasion and play at that level.
“He believes in himself.”
Play like Rey
When Mark Guthrie was playing for the New York Mets in 2002, 6-year-old Dalton was fascinated by Rey Ordonez, the team’s shortstop. He watched as Ordonez worked magic in the infield, making play after play after play with relative ease. Soon, Dalton began mimicking Ordonez’s moves.
“Rey used to do that pop-up slide in the hole and no one else did that. Dalton thought that was the neatest thing in the world,” Mark Guthrie said.
Fast forward 15 years. Guthrie has looked like a mini-Ordonez for the Gators this season.
Guthrie’s most notable heroics came in Florida’s 4-3 win over Georgia on April 30, when he made four diving grabs over nine innings and a pair of throws to first base from his knees.
— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) April 30, 2017
“That’s the best defensive game I think I’ve ever seen from an infielder with Dalton Guthrie,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said after the game. “He made some plays today that were … I don’t know, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The dives. The over-the-shoulder grabs. The seemingly impossible plays. They’re all routine for Guthrie nowadays.
“He doesn’t think. He just does it,” Andrea Guthrie said. “He’s not trying to put on a show. That’s his style. That’s what makes him kind of unique. … It’s just Dalton being Dalton.”
‘You can never be too good for the game’
Dalton Guthrie has seen his game improve over the last three years.
Each time he takes the field, he is proving to himself that he’s up for the task of playing the game he loved growing up.
“You can never be too good for the game,” he said. “You just try to keep getting better every day. Hopefully, it pays off.”
His next chance to do that is this weekend when the Gators begin play in the College World Series against No. 6 seed TCU Sunday at 7 p.m. ET.
In a ballpark such as Omaha’s TD Ameritrade, where the outfield spans 335 feet down the lines and 408 feet in center field, defense will be a key to success.
“We’ll be tested a lot, Guthrie said. “We have to come through and make plays for our pitchers and give ourselves a chance to win. If our bats pick up a little bit, we should be OK.”
Florida has been tested all season. There were the 18 one-run victories, the injuries and the hot-and-cold offense. The Gators seemingly played with their backs against the wall all season. To Guthrie, that only can serve as an advantage.
“We’re just the team that finds a way to win and sort of squeaked in almost,” he said. “We have something to prove. If there’s a team to do it, it’s this one.”