Kish battling to be the third starter

With two weeks until the season starts, the Gators are still searching for their third starting pitcher. Preseason All-Americans Jonathon Crawford and Karsten Whitson lead the rotation, but one of the veterans that could join them on the weekends is junior right-hander Keenan Kish. Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan has gained trust in Kish during his two years on campus.

Kish is prepared for whatever role the Gators need him to fill. He has been filling in as a reliever over the last two seasons, but a move to the stating rotation would be an easy transition.

The numbers make it a question why Kish hasn't seen more time on the mound during his first two years in Gainesville. In 41.2 career innings over the last two seasons, Kish has a 1.51 ERA, allowing just 30 hits and 12 walks while striking out 40 hitters.

The Gators won't make a final decision about the third starter until next weekend at the earliest, but Kish is right in the mix.

"We would like to start him," Kevin O'Sullivan said before practice Thursday. "He has earned the right to do that. If we don't have any options at the end of the game, we'd be forced to (use him as the closer). I do feel comfortable thinking that he's putting himself in a good position to start."

O'Sullivan wants to make the decision for a third starter based on his closer. If Florida feels confident enough with an option at closer other than Kish — O'Sullivan named Justin Shafer as a possibility on Thursday — then Kish could serve as a starting pitcher.

However, if the options to close games struggle during the final weeks of practice and early parts of the season, O'Sullivan wants to move Kish into the closer's role. After having the luxury of Greg Larson, Austin Maddox and Steven Rodriguez to close games last season, the head coach wants to feel comfortable with the back end of his bullpen before making other decisions.

It doesn't matter to Kish. He excelled down the stretch in 2012, even recording the final out of the Super Regional win over N.C. State that sent the Gators to their third straight College World Series appearance. The trust in him grew as the season went on, and he went into the offseason with momentum on his side.

"The close to last year was great," Keenan Kish said. "It was a real confidence booster. It gave me some momentum, especially going out to Omaha and pitching against South Carolina. I've been feeling really good. Our team had a heck of a run. That was a real big momentum builder for me."

In preparation for what he hopes is a spot in the starting rotation, Kish spent the offseason working on his changeup. His fastball and slider are good enough to get college hitters out, but he knew the changeup needed to improve. It would also give him that third pitch that every starting pitcher needs.

In the bullpen, it wasn't a big deal. Kish only needed his changeup against left-handed hitters, and he was mostly used against right-handers. He won't have much say in the hitters he faces as a starting pitcher, so the changeup needed to be developed. He's happy with where the pitch is now.

"I'm trying to develop that as a third pitch and have that in my back pocket," Kish said. "I'm trying to be able to whip it out whenever I want to."

Behind Kish are plenty of pitchers that also want the third starter spot. Daniel Gibson, Eric Hanhold, Johnny Magliozzi, Tucker Simpson and Corey Stump are all in the mix. Hanhold and Simpson are freshmen that have been drawing rave reviews since they stepped foot on campus in the fall.

"It's a really talented group of guys," Kish said of the freshmen. "Tucker Simpson has really, really been throwing the ball well. Eric Hanhold, Jason Carmichael, Mike VinsonDanny Young has a great left-handed arm. We're going to be pretty deep and for years to come. It's a really solid group of pitchers."

The freshmen won't have their inexperience held against them in the battle for the third starter spot. O'Sullivan said he will give the job to the player that he feels is the best for the spot, not based on age.

"Freshman, sophomore, junior, senior… I'll go with the best guy available," O'Sullivan said. "I don't care, really."

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