Beat Up Gators Head to Knoxville

There wasn't much that could slow the Gators (26-7/7-5 SEC) down at the beginning of the season. The starters were dominant while the offense cranked out the necessary runs for the bullpen to shut it down. That's when injuries started to chip away. No. 4 Florida is still ranked high in every poll while weathering the injuries and not playing at full health as it heads to Tennessee this weekend.

The first red flag came when Karsten Whitson allowed five hits, two walks and one hit batter against Cal State Fullerton in his first start of the year. He only recorded two strikeouts and didn't look as sharp as he did during his freshman year.

That became evident when Whitson was pulled after 13 pitches in his second start of the season against William & Mary. He was benched with a dead arm and returned for a tune up start against North Florida on April 3 that only lasted an inning.

He returned to the weekend rotation on April 7 against LSU and only made it through 1+ inning before being pulled. Whitson's velocity was back in the mid 90s, but his command wasn't sharp, as he hit two batters and gave up two hits and two runs.

He is back in the rotation this weekend and will pitch on Saturday for the Gators.

The second key injury came on March 16 when Florida hosted Vanderbilt. Center fielder Tyler Thompson tore his ACL while awkwardly rounding first base. This forced Daniel Pigott into center field, a position he has played sparingly during his first three seasons at Florida.

Thompson was a 46th round draft pick of the Washington Nationals last season and thought seriously about skipping his senior year to play professional baseball. He changed his mind and elected to come back to put together one healthy campaign and try to boost his draft stock. As it has been for many of his teammates, a fully healthy season didn't happen.

Freshman third baseman Josh Tobias fractured his hamate bone against South Carolina on March 23. That forced Cody Dent, who is hitting .146, into the lineup. Tobias was hitting .250 at the time of his injury with a .348 on-base percentage.

Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said the timetable was 3-4 weeks after the surgery, which would put Tobias on track to return some time from April 18-25.

It was a smaller loss on paper, but third baseman Zack Powers saw his season end with a shoulder injury that will force him to take a redshirt. His bat in the lineup would help the Florida offense get more production from third base if he was able to play.

The latest injury is to starting pitcher Hudson Randall, who is listed as day-to-day heading into the weekend. The junior was held out last weekend with a dead arm. As a sophomore, Randall went 11-3 with a 2.17 ERA. This season, he was 3-1 with a 3.56 ERA, allowing 44 hits in 43 innings before the injury.

The bright spot for Florida is that only Thompson's ACL injury is a large setback. All of the other injured players have returned or are expected to within a few weeks.

The injuries have also helped the Gators find depth. Emerging stars like Jonathon Crawford and Vickash Ramjit, who has become somewhat of a folk hero to Florida baseball fans, have found their roles on the team and excelled.

Crawford will make the first Friday night start of his career this weekend in Knoxville. He has made a start in all four SEC series this year, going 2-0 with a 3.06 ERA. Tennessee right-hander Zack Godley (4-1, 3.81) will oppose Crawford on Friday.

Ramjit is the team's leading hitter in SEC play, going 12-30 (.400), also leading the team with three home runs and 11 RBI.

The challenge now becomes putting everything together. Florida has added an impact bat with Ramjit's emergence in the lineup and a frontline SEC starter in Crawford. When the rotation gets healthy, Crawford should push for important postseason innings while Ramjit continues to stabilize the bottom of the order.

Until all the pieces get healthy and back on the team, the Gators have to tread water and stay close in the SEC race. They are currently two games behind Kentucky in the SEC championship race.

Florida heads to Knoxville this weekend for a matchup with a scrappy Tennessee team. Under the direction of first-year head coach Dave Serrano, the Volunteers are playing a similar style to what Serrano coached at Cal State Fullerton. They're active on the base paths, with 46 stolen bases compared to Florida's 27, and have 33 sac bunts compared to Florida's 18.

Tennessee (20-13/6-6 SEC) is a completely different offense than Florida. The Gators depend on the long ball, and they're leading the country with 45 home runs on the season. The Volunteers have hit just 13 home runs. Drew Steckenrider has five of those home runs for Tennessee while Ethan Bennett and Chris Fritts are the only other players on the team with more than one.

On the mound, Godley is the one Volunteers pitcher that has made more than five starts. Senior left-hander TJ Thornton (0-0, 4.26) will throw on Saturday while sophomore right-hander Nick Williams (2-3, 2.02, 3 saves) will finish off the series on the mound for Tennessee.

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