O'Sullivan tabs pitching as early strongpoint

Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 8:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 9:10 p.m.

There are still obvious question marks as Florida prepares for its season opener against Duke Feb. 15, but one thing head coach Kevin O'Sullivan isn't worried about is his pitching staff.

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Florida pitcher Karsten Whitson throws during the first practice of the 2013 season at McKethan Stadium on Friday, Jan. 25. Whitson is projected to be at the top of the Gators' rotation this season.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer

Led by the starting tandem of junior right-handers Jonathon Crawford and Karsten Whitson, a solid group of returnees headlined by juniors Keenan Kish and Daniel Gibson and a talented group of newcomers that were part of the No. 7-ranked recruiting class in the nation, UF's staff should be a major strength for the Gators.

Crawford and Whitson were both named to the 2013 Baseball America Preseason All-American team released Thursday.

“I think it starts with Crawford and Whitson obviously, and we've got some older guys like Kish and Gibson that we'll lean on this year,” O'Sullivan said. “But we've also got some freshmen who are throwing the ball really well.”

Crawford was one of the feel-good stories of 2012.

After throwing just 3.2 innings as a freshman, he made 19 appearances with 14 starts and posted a 6-2 record with a 3.13 ERA. He recorded 75 strikeouts in 77.2 innings of work while allowing just two home runs all season.

In three NCAA Tournament appearances, he was 1-0 with a 2.30 ERA and had 13 strikeouts in 15.2 innings of work, highlighted by a complete-game no-hitter against Bethune-Cookman in the opening round of the NCAA Gainesville Regional, the first Gator hurler to do so since John Burke (1991).

“A lot of it had to do with my arm slot,” Crawford said. “I made a change that enabled me to throw more strikes, and that got me into the games. Once I got in and worked my way out of some pressure situations, everything just went up from there.”

Over the summer, he was the No. 1 starter for the 2012 USA Collegiate National Team, gaining valuable international experience.

“It's probably as big of a jump as I have ever seen from one year to the next,” O'Sullivan said. “It's amazing how 12 months can change someone's career, and he's certainly a great story that will be told for many, many years.”

Whitson, a former first-round draft pick in 2010, gives the Gators a 1-2 combination that O'Sullivan noted “is as good as anyone's in the country.”

He was 8-1 as a freshman starter with a 2.40 ERA and struck out 92 batters in 97.1 innings of work, but slowed by nagging injuries last season, Whitson (4-0, 3.51 ERA) threw just 33.1 innings.

“I feel really good about Karsten,” O'Sullivan said. “He's going to have a great year. He's in great shape and is in a great frame of mind.”

The battle for the No. 3 starter is still ongoing, with the right-handed Kish (0-0, 1.98 ERA) and left-handed Gibson (1-1, 2.06 ERA) leading the charge.

“The outlook is positive,” O'Sullivan said. “We just don't know who it is yet. By next weekend, we should have a pretty good idea.”

“The last two years, there's been kind of the same core group here, and that kind of chews up the majority of the innings,” Gibson said. “They're not here anymore, but there are guys here who are ready to step up into those roles and ready to take advantage of the opportunities.”

Sophomore outfielder Justin Shafer faces the Gator hurlers every day in practice.

“Our pitchers grind,” said Shafer, who could be an option at closer should Kish nail down the third starting spot. “A lot of them throw strikes and have great stuff. I don't think I'll face anyone better than Crawford.”

As O'Sullivan knows, you can never have too many arms.

“We do like our depth,” he said. “We've just got to get a bunch of those young guys out there early and kind of get their feet wet.”

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