GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Gators right-hander Karsten Whitson toed the rubber, lifted his left leg and drove toward the plate with his thick right leg at 1:06 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
For the record, Whitson’s first pitch of his first college start was a ball to USF lead-off hitter James Ramsay. Whitson dominated from there.
As far as openings go, the Gators get an A for finishing off a three-game sweep of the Bulls with a 5-0 win on Sunday at McKethan Stadium. Whitson deserves an A+ for his performance.
Considering Whitson’s unusual path to UF, his first collegiate start was as highly anticipated as any in history for a Florida freshman. Whitson was drafted ninth overall in last summer’s MLB Amateur Draft by the Padres.
The two sides negotiated all summer. Finally, as the Aug. 18 deadline approached, nearly everyone assumed Whitson would sign with San Diego for a reported $2.1 million and be back in his hometown of Chipley waiting for his first minor-league assignment by the time Florida opened its season.
Instead, Whitson opted to enroll at Florida and there he was in the flesh Sunday afternoon wearing No. 22 for the Gators. Facing a USF team that is picked to finish in the upper half of the Big East Conference, Whitson often looked like he was still in high school blowing away Class 3A hitters.
In the opposing dugout, first-year USF pitching coach Chuck Hernandez took notice. Hernandez has seen plenty of multi-million dollar arms in his 30 years in professional baseball, including 2006 American League Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander.
Hernandez was Detroit’s pitching coach that season as the Tigers surprised many by making it all the way to the World Series while Verlander won 17 games in his first season.
Hernandez watched Whitson closely.
“He’s very legit – tremendous fastball, good breaking ball,’’ Hernandez said. “He showed great poise for a freshman. I was really impressed.’’
Whitson, working on a pitch count, had command of his mid-90s fastball and hard slider all day. He also tossed in an occasional change-up, a pitch he didn’t have in his repertoire when he arrived in school. Whitson pitched five shutout innings, limiting the Bulls to one hit. He struck out nine, walked one and threw 44 of his 66 pitches for strikes.
He retired 11 in a row at one point after giving up his only hit – a single by Sam Mende in the first inning – and struck out five consecutive batters during one stretch. After issuing his only walk in the fifth to USF’s Junior Carlin, he got Chad Taylor to ground into a double play to end the inning and his day’s work.
Afterward, Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan tried to answer a question as serious as he could when he was asked if Whitson had earned another start next week. O’Sullivan eventually just chuckled, saying he thought so.
“Karsten, he was outstanding,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I’m looking forward to getting him out there again. It was good to get his first start out of the way. Hopefully he can build on that.’’
Whitson said he felt no added pressure when he took the mound Sunday, his first start since last year’s high school playoffs. He said other than for some butterflies, it was business as usual.
“It was just another game to me. I was definitely a little nervous, but as far as pressure, none,’’ he said.
Still, after the way the day played out, he’ll remember Sunday for a while. Even though he has already pitched at PETCO Park in San Diego and Wrigley Field in Chicago during amateur showcase events, Whitson said he’ll rank what took place Sunday pretty high on his list of milestones.
“It’s definitely up there,’’ he said. “It’s got to be top one or two. This is the reason right here I came to school, just to throw on this Gator uniform and just come out here to pitch. It was definitely a lot of fun.’’
Gator catcher Mike Zunino enjoyed the show. Zunino said the game plan was to attack USF’s aggressive lineup with inside fastballs and mixing in Whitson’s nasty slider and still-developing change-up.
The plan went according to script thanks to Whitson’s composure and his dynamic stuff.
“He hit his spots dead-on,’’ Zunino said. “That’s the sharpest I’ve seen him in the fall and the spring. He just kept throwing everything for strikes and [was] able to keep the hitters off balance. We were able to dominate the inside corner.’’
With a large group of reporters surrounding O’Sullivan after the game, needless to say, the topic of the hour was Whitson’s performance. O’Sullivan saw the obvious like the announced crowd of 3,852 and the reporters in the press box: at least for a day, all the hype surrounding Whitson seemed well-deserved.
But O’Sullivan also reminded everyone that it was just one start.
Hernandez understood perfectly. As he leaned on a fence down the left-field line shortly after taking a picture with his son – a UF student – Hernandez warned of the expectations. In his years as a major-league and minor-league pitching coach, one of the first talks he would give the latest hot-shot arm included “I don’t care what you’ve done in the past, it’s about what you’re going to do in the future.’’
“It’s his first game as a Florida Gator. I thought he handled himself really well out there,’’ Hernandez said. “He’s a blue-chip guy. They all don’t become great. If I see that kid and I’m a pro scout, I’m all over that, of course.
“Now when we get him into the minor-league system, now what are you going to do. Show me what kind of work ethic you have. They have to understand the whole package.’’
Based on first impressions, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Whitson seems to have a solid foundation built on those tree-trunk legs of his. Asked about the five-consecutive strikeouts, Whitson said: “I’m sure that won’t happen every time. It was a good day.’’
Whether Whitson goes on to have a great career at Florida and onto the major leagues won’t be known for a few years. But on a sunny afternoon in Gainesville, he made an impressive first pitch at future success.
Gator shortstop Nolan Fontana may have summed up it best when asked what he thought of Whitson’s performance.
“He looked like a veteran out there,’’ Fontana said. “He looked like a guy who’s been out there for several years playing in front of a crowd like this. It’s good because he’s got talent, everyone knows that.’’
If not before Sunday, they certainly do now.