Gator Starting Rotation in Good Shape

Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan knows he is in a unique situation. Returning all three of a team's weekend starters doesn't happen much in college baseball. It's even more rare that a high school pitcher selected in the first round decides to forgo the money and attend college. Neither situation is expected, but both are a reality for Florida's pitching staff this season.

"Very rarely do you get your whole weekend rotation back- usually graduation or the draft takes care of that," O'Sullivan said. "It takes a few years for guys to develop into a weekend starter. We've got some depth, and that should be one of our strengths."

Sophomores Brian Johnson and Hudson Randall are expected to be in the weekend rotation. The third spot still looks to be up in the air. Junior Alex Panteliodis, who won a team-high eleven games in 2010 and comes into this season as a Second Team Preseason All-American, is recovering from offseason hip surgery that forced him to miss the entire fall.

Freshman Karsten Whitson, who was the No. 9 overall pick in the MLB Draft before deciding to turn down $2.1 million and go to college, also looks poised to be in the weekend rotation. The fifth candidate is Tommy Toledo. The junior right-hander has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but he is healthy and throwing the ball as well as any point in his career.

There are five options, four that have had plenty of success in college, competing for three spots on the weekend rotation. There will still be opening in the midweek rotation, too.

"You go into it lining up your first four starting pitchers," O'Sullivan said. "Depending on how they do, you set your rotation for the following year. This year is unique because we have guys with a history. We have guys who have performed well on a big stage. I don't know if there will be a whole lot of change, but we've got four or five really good starters."

Panteliodis faced hitters in Saturday's scrimmage for the first time since he started Florida's opening game in the College World Series against UCLA. He didn't pitch in the summer leagues or fall practice because of a hip injury that hurt him for the final six starts of the 2010 season.

He hasn't wasted time getting back into form during bullpens, but the big step will come while facing hitters.

"We didn't push him or rush him back," O'Sullivan said. "He has thrown six bullpens so far, and he has looked sharp. Actually, his off-speed stuff looks even a little better."

BULLPEN ROLES TO BE DEFINED: Florida has the arms in the bullpen capable of replacing closer Kevin Chapman and right-handed specialist Jeff Barfield. They will use the three weeks of spring practice to figure out how they will use each pitcher.

Steven Rodriguez is believed to be the frontrunner to take over as the closer, but the three weeks leading up to the first game will be taken into consideration.

"Sometimes the seventh inning is as important as the ninth to close a game," O'Sullivan said. "You never know when that pivotal point is going to come up. We've got some options. We have three or four guys that we'd feel real comfortable with closing a one-run game."

DEFENSIVE CHANGES: The Gators succeeded last year because of defense. The offense wasn't as potent as this year's looks to be, so the team couldn't give away any free outs. The coaches continue to put an emphasis on it this year.

"We've always stressed defense," O'Sullivan said. "Last year, we were an outstanding defensive ballclub. That's been one of the things we've stressed since we have been here- pitching and defense. Each year, we've improved defensive and pitching-wise, and hopefully this year will be the same."

The defense will have a different look this season. Brian Johnson is expected to play first base when he isn't pitching. Austin Maddox will stay at third base, and Preston Tucker will move to right field.

Maddox played third last season after practicing there for a little over a week. He has put in an entire offseason of defense, and the progress is encouraging.

However, that's not all that has changed. Maddox worked hard on getting in better shape, too.

"Maddox has changed his entire body," O'Sullivan said. "He dedicated himself in the offseason to get better defensively, and he has looked great so far. He has dropped 15 pounds and been determined to make himself the best defensive third baseman he can, and we're comfortable with him.

"It's not just his weight. His strength is better, and his flexibility is better. His first step quickness is better."

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