New-look rotation faces Duke

When No. 15 Florida hosts Duke this weekend to open the season, the Gators will use a starting rotation without Brian Johnson or Hudson Randall for the first time since 2009. It's the start of a new era at McKethan Stadium. Florida enters the season with All-American Jonathon Crawford on Friday nights and two new starters on Saturday and Sunday.

Jonathon Crawford is well known nationally for his strong season last year. It's not a surprise that he's the ace of the staff, and with Karsten Whitson out for the season after a shoulder procedure on Wednesday, Crawford will need to anchor the staff.

Behind him, the Gators will go with freshman Tucker Simpson on Saturday and sophomore Justin Shafer, who threw six innings last year, will start on Sunday.

That's a lot of unknown for Florida fans, opposing teams, and truthfully, even the Florida coaches. Head coach Kevin O'Sullivan has seen Simpson and Shafer dominate scrimmages — Florida hitters went 2-for-38 against Shafer this spring — but O'Sullivan still doesn't know what will happen when they're thrown on the field to start the season.

There's plenty of intrigue with Simpson. The 6-6, 220-pound righty was the 6A pitcher of the year in Alabama last season while being named a first-team Louisville Slugger All-American. Simpson went 9-3 with a 1.89 ERA during his senior year at Oxford High School, striking out 149 and walking 12 in 83 innings while carrying the team to a state championship.

He has pitched in big games, and the freshman throwing in the low-90s is ready to start in the weekend rotation immediately.

"He's got great downhill to his ball," O'Sullivan said. "For a young pitcher, he has great feel for the strike zone. He's a young pitcher that has four pitches for strikes. He has an advanced feel for a changeup and is always around the zone. Probably the most important component — he's really competitive. He has pitched in some really big games. He's ready for this challenge."

Simpson making the weekend rotation continues a trend under O'Sullivan. He's not afraid to put the best talent on the mound, regardless of age. Simpson will be the sixth freshman to make a start during the opening weekend during O'Sullivan's six-year tenure at Florida.

The previous five pitchers to do it are Tommy Toledo (2008), Nick Maronde (2009), Alex Panteliodis (2009), Brian Johnson (2010), Karsten Whitson (2011). Last season was the first year a freshman hasn't been in the weekend rotation.

With Maronde already being in the Major Leagues and Johnson a first-round pick last year, Simpson is entering a position where a lot is expected out of a freshman.

"He's throwing strikes," O'Sullivan said. "He had a great fall and a really good spring. He has been throwing the ball well, but this is obviously going to be a different deal when the lights go on."

Shafer has been compared to Hudson Randall because of his quick tempo and tendency to pound the strike zone. The sophomore creates weak contact and features a hard slider as his strikeout pitch.

He'll still hit in the middle of the order for the Gators. Shafer ended 2012 as the team's hottest hitter when Florida was eliminated from the College World Series. O'Sullivan has always been drawn to two-way players, and Shafer will take over that role from Johnson and Austin Maddox the past three seasons.

"We like two-way players," O'Sullivan said. "Justin didn't pitch a whole lot last year because quite frankly we didn't need him to. He has earned this starting role. Originally we had him scheduled for the pen, but he has been really good and forced our hand."

The statistics for Duke aren't impressive. The Blue Devils finished second to last in batting average and earned run average the Atlantic Coast Conference last season. Duke hit .259 last season with 19 home runs as a team — or as many as Florida catcher Mike Zunino hit by himself. And Duke's leading home run hitter, Will Piwnica-Worms (7), isn't on the team this year.

First-year head coach Chris Pollard took the job after spending the previous seven seasons at Appalachian State.

"They return eight of nine starters, so they've got some experience there," O'Sullivan said. "It's an experienced group. The coaches do a very good job and had a tremendous amount of success at App State. It's going to be a challenge for us."

On the mound, the Blue Devils lost first-round pick Marcus Stroman to the Toronto Blue Jays. Only two other pitchers on the team had an ERA under 4.00. Reliever Andrew Istler (3.63 ERA) is the only one that returns.

Sophomore left-hander Trent Swart (4-8, 4.28 ERA) will get the ball in the season opener on Friday night. He struck out 76 hitters in 73.2 innings last season but walked 33 and allowed a .275 batting average against.

Junior right-hander Drew Van Orden will start Saturday's game at 4 p.m. He went 0-4 last season with a 5.82 ERA in 23 relief appearances. Opposing batters hit .306 against him last season.

Junior right-hander Robert Huber will start Sunday's series finale at noon. He went 4-6 with a 5.19 ERA last season, allowing 41 walks and a .281 batting average against in 78 innings.

"They've got experience on the mound," O'Sullivan said.

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