GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Last Thursday, on the eve of the season opener, Gators baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan clearly stated the importance of redshirt junior Karsten Whitson to this year’s club.
“He needs to be good for us to be good,’’ O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan knows that if Whitson can come close to duplicating his freshman season in 2011 – he was 8-1 with a 2.40 ERA in 19 starts – Florida’s pitching staff has a certifiable ace.
On Sunday afternoon at McKethan Stadium Gator fans got their first glimpse of Whitson on the mound in more than 20 months. Whitson started Sunday’s 8-5 win against Maryland, his first outing since May 2012 in the SEC Tournament.
Whitson missed much of the 2012 season and all of 2013 with various injuries, including surgery to clean up his right shoulder.
In his first start of the season, Whitson threw 48 pitches (28 strikes) and got a no-decision. In two innings, Whitson allowed four hits, three runs, walked two, struck out two and threw a wild pitch.
He was clocked in the low 90s consistently and topped out at 93 on a second-inning fastball. While he appeared to have trouble locating his fastball, Whitson consistently threw strikes with his off-speed pitches.
“I thought he did a great job,’’ junior catcher Taylor Gushue said. “He threw a lot of strikes. He attacked the strike zone. There is nothing more that we can ask for him. We definitely supported him with the bats, so he didn’t have to worry about that. Overall, I’d say his first outing was a good one. I think he is going to come out stronger next time.”
All three of Maryland’s runs against Whitson came in his 30-pitch first inning. He walked leadoff batter Charlie White on five pitches, and then retired the next two batters – Brandon Lowe on a sacrifice bunt and LaMonte Wade on a pop up to third.
Whitson then got ahead of Terrapins cleanup hitter Kevin Martir 0-2 before leaving a ball out over the plate that Martir smacked into left field for an RBI single. Whitson threw a first-pitch strike to the next batter, Blake Schmit, before leaving another pitch up that Schmit drilled to left-center for an RBI double.
After a walk and another double, Whitson finally escaped the inning by getting Krysthian Leal to ground out to second for the final out.
“He was fine other than the 0-2 mistake,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He bounces a breaking ball there and he probably gets out of the inning and doesn’t give up any runs.”
Whitson came back with a much more efficient second inning, facing five batters and striking out two.
The Gators scored four runs in a long bottom of the second and O’Sullivan opted to turn the game over to reliever Eric Hanhold, who delivered three shutout innings.
“I wanted him to leave on a good note,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He was at 50 pitches. How much more is he going to go? I thought it was the right time. He left on a positive note. He had a clean second inning.”
While it wasn’t vintage Whitson, a classic power pitcher who can hit the mid-90s and mix in a nasty slider when at the top of his game, the comeback victory and taking two of three in the season-opening series made it an enjoyable day at the ballpark for the Gators.
Whitson’s next turn likely will come in a weekend series at Miami that starts Friday.
It will be another chance to prove that he can be the ace the Gators envision.
“I felt confidence from him,’’ Gushue said of Whitson’s pregame demeanor Sunday. “It helped me, too. I’m always happy to catch Karsten. It’s a good thing.”
You won’t hear O’Sullivan argue with that.
“In his defense, it’s been a lot time since he’s been out there,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He made a lot of stressful pitches in two innings. He was anxious to want to get out there. He threw the ball much better in the second inning.”
“We’re going to keep running him out there. He’ll figure this thing out.”