Rodriguez Testing out a New Pitch

A sub-two ERA wasn't good enough for Florida reliever Steven Rodriguez. He wants lower, and to do so, he went out and found a new pitch this offseason. The left-hander used a cutter and four-seam fastball to record 44 strikeouts in 37.2 innings last year, but his new two-seam fastball might make him even better in 2012.

"It's going to help me throw the cutter in on a righty, but I can throw the two-seamer away to a righty, too," Steven "Paco" Rodriguez said. "It's now two pitches I can go with and keep the guys guessing so they don't know what's going to come."

Even last year, it didn't look like hitters knew what was coming very often. Rodriguez's most effective outing came at the College World Series. In a game to send Florida to the winner's side of its half of the bracket, Rodriguez threw 4.1 scoreless innings of relief, allowing one hit and one and striking out seven Vanderbilt hitters.

Rodriguez got better as the season went on. However, he still wants to improve. He wants to be a reliever that the coaches can trust in any situation, not just as a left-handed specialist, and the two-seam fastball can make him that pitcher.

"That's the pitch I've been working on the most," Rodriguez said. (Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan) and I have talked about it a lot, and it's something new I can bring into this year that I haven't used. That's the big thing I've been using against all the lefties. It's something new they haven't seen before from me."

The addition of the two-seam fastball didn't waste time making an impact. Rodriguez struck out the first eight hitters he faced in scrimmages this fall. The Gators sent Preston Tucker to the plate to be the ninth hitter, just begging for someone to make contact.

As Tucker grounded out to shortstop, the entire Florida team sarcastically applauded that a player was able to put the ball in play against Rodriguez.

"The hitters didn't have their timing down, and I just felt really good," Rodriguez said. "Everything was working. It was something where everybody was just saying, ‘Oh, there goes Paco again doing the same thing.' It's just fun going out there and facing the guys."

KISH ROLE EXPANDING: With Rodriguez, Austin Maddox and Greg Larson back, the search for middle relievers will last through the early parts of the season. Keenan Kish threw in mop up duty last season, holding a 0.63 ERA in 14.1 innings last season. Most of those came in low leverage situations when the game was out of reach.

After the Gators lost four relievers that threw 38 innings or more last season, Kish is one candidate to step up and throw more innings during his sophomore year.

"I'm expecting to have a bigger role this year, but you've got to earn it," Kish said. "There's a lot of talent here and everybody is fighting for a spot."

While Kish didn't see much time on the mound last season, he was learning from the veterans. The Gators had plenty of juniors and seniors on last year's teams that went pro, and Kish didn't waste many opportunities to learn from that.

"Last year was a great learning experience," Kish said. "I learned so much from the older guys like Tommy Toledo, Anthony DeSclafani and Nick Maronde. Being able to talk to them and pick their brain about going through this system, it was just awesome to learn all their knowledge."

Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan will lean on the sophomore class of pitchers this season. Outside of Kish, Jonathan Crawford and Daniel Gibson are also competing for bullpen roles this spring.

It has been a transition for all three of them. After being used as starting pitchers during their high school careers, all three have been moved into bullpen roles. It's a common occurrence for freshmen at major programs that have plenty of returners in the starting rotation, but that doesn't make it easy.

"In high school, things are different," Kish said. "Most of us were starters in high school so we knew what days we were throwing. You could cater to that routine. What I like about coming out of the bullpen is you don't know when you're throwing, so you have to be ready every day. You have to put in your preparation beforehand."

THOMPSON READY FOR HEALTHY SEASON: After center fielder Bryson Smith graduated, the easy solution is to slide in Tyler Thompson as his replacement. Thompson and Daniel Pigott have split time in left field in recent seasons, and the two seniors will now be able to start in the same outfield.

The only thing that kept Thompson off the field has been injuries. He was nagged with a hamstring injury that slowed him at the beginning of last season, while it was different injuries earlier in his career. This fall, he has been as healthy as any point in his career.

The added health has allowed Thompson to put in extra time in the weight room. O'Sullivan said that his arm strength has increased, which is important with the move to center field.

"I think it has more to do with just getting in the weight room and getting stronger," Thompson said about the added arm strength. "I've been doing the same (throwing) program, so I think it's just about getting bigger and stronger."

For outfielders, there's a pride in playing center field. The added room in the gaps creates a challenge to cover more ground than in one of the corners. Thompson isn't the fastest player on the team, but his ability to read the ball off the bat makes him capable to play the position.

"I'm excited about it. In high school, I was a center fielder the whole time and I liked that a lot more than the corners. When I got here and put in left field, I got comfortable. I'm excited to be in center this year. I do definitely like it better. It's just more ground, and you're in charge.

"If you want to catch the ball out there, you go catch the ball. You can call anybody off. There's just a lot more room to run around in the gaps."

Fightin Gators Top Stories