Whitson's Emergence Makes the Gators Tough

The depth of the Florida starting pitchers isn't much of a secret. Even when the offense or bullpen has struggled for the Gators, there hasn't been much drop off in the starting rotation. It has carried the team all season, but the improvement of freshman Karsten Whitson in recent weeks has made the starting rotation even more dangerous.

The dominance of the starters was clear in a three-game sweep over Mississippi during the weekend.

The starting pitchers combined to throw 20 innings and allowed only 13 hits and three runs while combining for 19 strikeouts. Right-hander Hudson Randall allowed all three of the runs, and he has been the most consistent starting pitcher on the team with a 1.75 ERA.

Randall, Brian Johnson and Karsten Whitson have combined for a 2.01 ERA on the season.

Randall has been the ace of the staff by pitching on Friday nights in recent weeks, but his statistics are easily the best on the staff. He has struck out only 39 hitters in 72 innings this year, but keeping the strikeout number low actually helps him. Randall knows the type of pitcher he is. The sophomore won't blow it by hitters. He relies on location and movement to gets out. If he tried to throw harder, his pitches would flatten out and the location wouldn't be as good.

After Randall's start, Brian Johnson isn't much easier to hit. He has the highest ERA of the starting pitchers with a miniscule 2.26. Johnson has recorded 57 strikeouts in 63.2 innings and only allowed 52 hits.

Despite those dominant statistics from the top two pitchers on the staff, they haven't been the best starter in the past two weeks.

That honor goes to freshman Karsten Whitson. After turning down a reported $2.1 million when was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft by the San Diego Padres, Whitson brought his mid-90s fastball and advanced slider to Gainesville, a place no one who follows the draft expected him to end up.

In his last two starts, Whitson has thrown 12.2 innings and allowed six hits and only one run, coming on a two-out bloop single against Alabama on April 24. Whitson has also recorded 11 strikeouts in that time.

And his success has plenty to do with what Randall and Johnson are doing.

Whitson sits in the dugout during the games on Friday and Saturday, watching how the first two pitchers attack the opposing team at the plate. He notices the tendencies of the opposing offense, whether they're aggressive and patient. He'll see how often they swing at off-speed pitches or if they only swing at fastballs.

"That helps me a lot," Whitson said. "We have a great relationship, so to see what the hitters are doing, we talk a lot about it after their starts to develop my game plan."

Whitson has also shown improved efficiency, allowing him to go deeper into games. Before his last two starts, 5.1 innings was the longest outing of his career. He has gone 6.2 and six innings respectively in his last two starts.

He doesn't think only about strikeouts anymore. He's not trying to blow away hitters like he did in high school. Instead, he's trying to execute pitches and get outs early in the count so he can continue to pitch deeper into games.

Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan has kept Whitson on the mound the past two weeks in tough situations to see if the freshman can work his way out of it. He usually does. The past two weeks, O'Sullivan has made a trip to the mound in those situations, but he decided to leave his freshman in the game. The message for Whitson is usually the same.

"He was telling me to stay focused, grab the ball across the two seams and throw the crap out of it," Whitson said. "It shows that he's got confidence in me, and I know I've got it in myself."

Whitson's ERA was 2.38 before his last two starts, so it's not like he was jeopardizing the team's chances to win the game. He just wasn't as sharp as he could be, and anyone who watched him throw could tell there was potential for him to be dominant.

He's not putting it all together and is one of the favorites for SEC Freshman of the Year.

"He has found his zone and how to attack hitters now," Florida catcher Mike Zunino said. "He had a better feel for his pitches, and he's been spot on lately."

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