Whitson healthy, ready to lead Gators

Karsten Whitson heads into the 2014 season as one of the biggest wildcards in college baseball. After Perfect Game named Whitson the National Freshman Pitcher of the Year in 2011, the right-hander has thrown just 33.1 innings over the last two seasons. He begins this season expecting to be the ace that the Gators need on the mound.

Whitson threw in a scrimmage on Tuesday and threw 30 of his 42 pitches for strikes. His fastball has returned to the mid-90s with a plus slider also back, flashing a changeup for a strike. It was enough to encourage the Florida coaches and players to believe that Whitson will return to full health this season and anchor the rotation.

"That's certainly the hope," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "Very, very encouraged with how he threw the other day. He has passed every test."

The redshirt junior isn't being babied, either. He's on pace with every other pitcher in the team's throwing program. The Gators took it easy with him in the fall after he missed the 2013 season with a shoulder impingement. Dr. James Andrews performed the non-surgical produce to clean up the shoulder with a four-month recovery that kept Whitson from throwing a pitch last season.

He was hampered by another arm injury in 2012 that allowed him to throw just 33.1 innings. Even when he returned late in the season, his fastball didn't have the velocity and his slider didn't have the bite that it did before the injury.

Whitson came to Gainesville after being the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft. He turned down a $2.1 million offer from the San Diego Padres to play at Florida and has dealt with injuries during two of his three seasons on campus.

Despite the bad luck, Whitson doesn't regret the decision he made out of high school.

"Absolutely not," Karsten Whitson said. "I'm at the greatest university in the country. I firmly believe that. It's been anything that I could've imagined it to be. I've grown a lot as a person and as a player, matured a lot. Our coaching staff has supported me through everything and the players as well."

Whitson spent the summer working hard through his rehab and trying to get his arm back to where it was. It didn't come as fast as he expected.

Even without consistent improvement, Whitson learned a lot about the mental toughness necessary through his rehab.

"It was just a roller coaster," Whitson said. "You're going to have ups and downs. There are times when your arm feels great, and then the next day, it's still bothering you a little bit. You push through it and trust that what was done was the right thing to do."

In the fall, things changed. Whitson was nervous going into the fall throwing program because he wasn't sure how his arm would respond. If he suffered another setback, it could mean a third season off the mound. The mental hang up was the worst part, and he found himself doubting whether or not his arm would get back to where it was.

But once he came to the portion of the throwing program that included longer throws at maximum velocity, the redshirt junior was surprised at what happened. His arm felt just like it did as a freshman in 2011.

"There's a hump you have to get over," Whitson said. "I felt like I got over that in the fall. Now it's just getting the repetitions and putting the work in to get this thing ready for a couple weeks. Once I aired it out this fall, I knew everything was good. And now this spring, everything is great so far."

His teammates see it, too.

Josh Tobias was a senior in high school when Whitson took college baseball by storm as a freshman. After facing him the last two years in practice while battling injuries, Tobias sees a different Whitson so far.

"He has come along. He's throwing really well right now," Tobias said. "He's still getting there, but he's definitely ready to pitch for us. He has a lot of juice on his fastball."

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