Starting Pitchers Healthy and Ready

The starting rotation is healthy and back in place from the beginning of the season. The only thing missing is their 2011 dominance. Brian Johnson, Hudson Randall and Karsten Whitson showed flashes of brilliance during last weekend's series win over Kentucky, but Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan is now hoping his starters take the next step to becoming one of the best staffs in the country.

Brian Johnson is the only one of the three that hasn't been injured this season. That doesn't mean he has been without struggles. The junior left-hander is 5-4 with a 4.29 ERA and allowing opponents to hit .273 against him. Johnson has also allowed a team-high seven home runs.

However, allowing one run in five innings at Kentucky last weekend could give Johnson the boost he needs to close strong. Johnson will start on Saturday against Mississippi State this weekend and face junior Kendall Graveman (3-3, 2.97).

Hudson Randall was good in his first outing back to open the Kentucky series. He allowed three runs in 6.2 innings and was pulled after a two-run home run. His control was sharp and his pitches had the movement that they flashed in 2011.

"One thing I've learned with sinkerball pitchers is the more we throw, the better our sink gets," Randall said. "When I get deeper into games, the more my ball sinks. That's just the way sinkerball pitchers are. With this many innings built up, I feel pretty comfortable on the mound now and the ball has some extra life to it."

The junior right-hander is hoping his arm is getting back into shape as Mississippi State comes to Gainesville this weekend. Randall will start the series opener on Friday night against Bulldogs ace Chris Stratton (9-0, 2.19).

"Randall probably threw the best he has thrown all year at Kentucky," O'Sullivan said. "I was really pleased. His changeup was outstanding, and his cutter was really good.

"It was vintage Randall last weekend."

Whitson is the wildcard. Since returning from a tired arm, his velocity has been back to where it was before he was pulled from the rotation. The difference is his command. He hasn't located his pitches well enough to fool hitters and create outs.

Last Friday was a positive step, as the sophomore gave up one run in 4.2 innings. He did allow six hits, three walks and one hit batter, but Whitson pitched well with runners on base to avoid further damage.

"Karsten found out a lot about himself (at Kentucky)," O'Sullivan said. "Maybe not having his best stuff, but he competed like no other. I'm looking forward to getting him back out there this weekend."

He continues to knock rust off and improve on the mound with each outing.

"Can he throw better than he did? Yeah. To go and pitch almost five innings and give up one run, I feel really good with where he's at," O'Sullivan said. "He'll throw better as we go along."

With the improved pitching is the hope that the team is about to click on all cylinders as the postseason creeps into focus. The pitching and defense are performing at a high level, but it's the Florida offense that is holding the team back.

"Our bats have been on and off, but we've got so many good players, I've got to feel like they'll catch fire," O'Sullivan said.

The criticism has focused on the offense for good reason, but O'Sullivan also pointed out on Thursday that the Gators are just one game behind the pace there were on last season.

That doesn't mean they're ignoring the current problems.

"We have not played our best baseball yet," O'Sullivan said. "I think that's the thing we keep hanging out hat on and keep thinking is that we haven't played our best. Our players know that, but they also understand they can't just turn it on there at the end and expect to play their best."

The Gators have a chance to get on the right track this weekend against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs come to Gainesville with an SEC-best 2.78 ERA. It's a pitching staff with plenty of arms but none better than Stratton. He's 9-0 with a 2.19 ERA and has struck out 101 batters in 82.1 innings.

Stratton was hit hard early in his career but always showed flashes of dominance. He has put it together during his junior year to create talk about a possible first round selection in the MLB Draft.

"Once again, another great Friday night pitcher in this league. We've faced other great Friday night starters in this league," O'Sullivan said. "They've got a great bullpen and do a great job mixing and matching."


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