Sophomore Trio Emerges This Fall

The returning All-SEC or All-American players won't determine the success of the Gators this spring. Seven starters in the field come back along with the whole weekend rotation and three key arms in the back of the bullpen. However, it's the maturation of three sophomore arms that could determine how good this team can be.

Jonathon Crawford, Daniel Gibson and Keenan Kish didn't have much of a role on the team last year. Crawford saw innings out of the bullpen early in the season but didn't get in games later in the year. Gibson and Kish were trusted with late innings of blow out games, and they handled it in different ways.

Kish posted a 0.63 ERA, allowing just one run in 14.1 innings and 12 strikeouts. Gibson had a 13.06 ERA and 23 hits in 10.1 innings last year.

This fall, the emphasis was for the three to improve and show they're capable of handling an increased role.

"You'll see a huge jump from most kids from their freshman to sophomore year," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "They're throwing more strikes and their stuff overall is better. They're able to throw an off-speed pitch, if not two, for strikes in a fastball count."

The importance of those three taking the next step is because of the losses in the bullpen last season. Anthony DeSclafani, Nick Maronde, Alex Panteliodis and Tommy Toledo were all taken in the top 13 rounds of last year's MLB Draft, and they left after throwing 188 combined innings last season.

The improvement of the three sophomores doesn't mean they're expected to throw that many innings, but their improvement has the coaches believing they are capable of handling some of the load.

"Those three sophomores have all shown a lot of promise and improvement," O'Sullivan said. "That was a major, major bullet for us because we lost so many arms out of the bullpen last year."

The increased inning load won't come as a surprise for the sophomores. All they had to do was look around the bullpen last year to see the number of draft eligible arms that weren't likely to be back this spring.

"We've talked about it," Gibson said. "We obviously know that we lost a lot of experience from our (bullpen) last year. We've just got to be prepared for it. We know what we have to do because there are a lot bigger expectations than we had last year.

"I feel like last year was just about getting comfortable. This year, it's time for us three to step it up and take a bigger role."

Crawford is the one that saw the most improvement in the fall. He showed promise in five outings last year, including a scoreless two innings of relief in Florida's first game of the year. However, as the season went on, the coaches simply trusted older pitchers more.

O'Sullivan, who also serves as the team's pitching coach, changed some of his mechanics. They lowered his arm slot from straight over the top to three-quarters, allowing his fastball to have natural sink and movement inside on right-handed hitters. His fastball is still 90-94 mph, but the change in his arm slot allows him to get away with any mistakes he leaves over the heart of the plate.

Crawford is throwing a hard slider that sits in the mid-80s, and the arm slot gives him a better feel for his changeup.

"He has probably made the most progress from last year to this year of anybody on our team," O'Sullivan said.

The Florida players have seen the improvement from Crawford, too. He walked just three hitters in over 15 innings this fall and challenged hitters with an increased confidence in his pitches.

"I think it was just a confidence issue," Florida first baseman Austin Maddox said. "He's throwing strikes, and that was his only problem. He always had the stuff to be good, but he just couldn't locate. Now he's starting to throw strikes and getting outs."

The Florida hitters used to know how to attack Crawford. They would wait him out when his control wasn't as sharp and get into counts where hitters were more likely to see fastballs. Once that happened, they would zero in on a fastball and hit it hard.

"This year, he'll hit the corner every time," Florida right fielder Preston Tucker said. "He'll jump ahead with his breaking ball because he can throw that for strikes, too. With his arm and capabilities, it's a lot bigger threat on the mound with his talent."

Gibson is expected to be the second left-hander out of the Florida bullpen. Steven Rodriguez will be the go-to left-hander after finishing last season with a 1.91 ERA, but with Panteliodis and Maronde both pitching in the minor leagues, the Gators need Gibson to step up.

"He's just commanding the strike zone," said Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who was Gibson's catcher with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League this summer. "He's getting the first two or three pitches for strikes. Last year, sometimes he fell behind hitters and was forced to throw a fastball when he couldn't throw a breaking ball. Now, he's commanding the strike zone."

Kish actually had the best statistics of the trio last season. However, the walks were too high. He gave seven hitters a free pass in 14.1 innings pitched as a freshman. Even in scrimmages, Kish's control was shaky and allowed too many hitters to reach base freely.

"He's attacking hitters and trusting his fastball," Zunino said. "He has gotten a lot more confident on the mound. It's the confidence factor of being able to pitch to contact and let out defense play. It's tough to get used to that and trust the defense, but he has done a good job doing that."

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