Strong Pitching Leads Gators to Hoover

The Florida pitching staff hasn't been used the way it was expected to when the year started. Injuries have changed the starting rotation but created a new star on the mound. Health isn't an issue anymore as the Gators open the SEC Tournament against Auburn on Tuesday at 5:30 EST. The focus for the tournament is to get the pitching back in a rhythm and prepared for the NCAA Tournament.

It's not just the starting rotation. The three normal starting pitchers—Brian Johnson, Hudson Randall and Karsten Whitson—are all healthy and made starts against Auburn together for the second weekend since February 24-26.

The hope is that one more start in the SEC Tournament will get them more comfortable on the mound and prepared for next weekend's NCAA Tournament.

Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson might not need it. The duo combined to give up one run in 16 innings at Auburn over the weekend. Whitson could use a positive outing. Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan was pleased with his outing on Auburn where he gave up two runs (one earned) in five innings.

Another strong outing could give Whitson the momentum he needs as the NCAA Tournament starts.

Amidst some uncertainty this year, the Florida bullpen has been the unit that carried the team.

"I think they've handled it great," O'Sullivan said. "Looking back at the regular season, Whitson out for six weeks and Randall missing a couple starts and Johnson missing a start, the strength of our pitching has been our bullpen. They've held things together for us.

"We've used them unconventionally where we've stretched Maddox and (Rodriguez) out if we have a lead after six to come in and threw three plus innings in some situations. They've held this thing together and put less pressure on our starting pitching."

The bullpen was hit with injury when Austin Maddox missed the Kentucky series, but junior left-hander Steven Rodriguez moved into the closer's role without any setbacks. Now that Maddox is back and healthy, the Gators have two arms in the back of the bullpen that the coaches trust.

They'll add another one in the postseason. Jonathon Crawford will get the start on Tuesday against Auburn, but the sophomore is expected to join the bullpen after that. He could serve as the fourth starter in the postseason and still be trusted as a situational arm out of the bullpen. He filled in for injured pitchers in the starting rotation during the year.

"I haven't had many staffs like this where you can randomly throw a guy that threw three innings last year, and he's starting on Friday night games," O'Sullivan said. "He arguably is one of our MVPs this year. He stepped into tough situations and pitched really good for us. I couldn't be more pleased with the progress he made."

When healthy, the back end pitcher hasn't changed. Austin Maddox has been dominant since earning more time on the mound as a sophomore, and that hasn't changed this season. The junior currently has 12 saves and is one away from the school record.

His arm is as good as any, but what has made him special is his competitiveness on the mound.

"He's about as competitive of a pitcher as I've ever coached," O'Sullivan said. "He wants the ball all the time. It doesn't matter if it's a Tuesday or Friday. He always wants to compete. He has developed himself into one of the best closers, if not the best closer, in the country.

"There are obviously other good ones out there, but we're really fortunate to have him. He's going to have a really long career."

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