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Gators right-hander Jonathon Crawford looks to get off to another good start in the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday May 30, 2013Gators Turn To Crawford To Get NCAA Tournament Off To Good Start

Gators right-hander Jonathon Crawford looks to get off to another good start in the NCAA Tournament.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The one-year anniversary of Gators starter Jonathon Crawford's NCAA Tournament debut is Saturday.

June 1, 2012. It's a day Crawford will always have regardless of how his promising career turns out. On a warm Friday night at McKethan Stadium, Crawford pitched only the seventh no-hitter in NCAA Tournament history.

When Florida second baseman Casey Turgeon leapt to snag Carlos Delgado's sharply hit line drive toward right field for the 27th and final out, Crawford's 4-0 masterpiece against Bethune-Cookman was in the record books.

Crawford jumped into catcher Mike Zunino's arms and was mobbed by teammates near the mound. He later got a shaving-cream pie in the face courtesy of Zunino.

Crawford had officially arrived as not only the Gators' ace of the future, but a potential first-round pick in the 2013 MLB Draft.

"What a way to start regional play,'' Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said afterward.

On Friday afternoon here in the Bloomington Regional, 364 days later, O'Sullivan will once again hand Crawford the ball in Florida's NCAA Tournament opener against Austin Peay.

It could be the junior right-hander's final start for the Gators. It's also perhaps his most important one.

The Gators enter the tournament at 29-28 and if they are going to pull any surprises in Bloomington, a good start by Crawford on Friday is a great place to begin.

At the start of the season, other than for maybe the most optimistic person you've ever met, few would have given the Gators a chance to return to the NCAA Tournament if you told them Crawford would win only three of his 14 starts and that the Gators would finish 5-9 in those 14 outings.

It seemed unfathomable considering the Gators lost starters Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson from last year's rotation, and Karsten Whitson and Keenan Kish from this season's rotation due to season-ending injuries.

Still, the Gators found a way as O'Sullivan used 10 different starting pitchers, with Crawford the only one making more than eight starts.

And here they are, still playing with the calendar about to flip to June.

When the regional brackets were announced Monday afternoon, the Gators drew one that on paper looks winnable. Of course, host Indiana is no pushover.

The Big Ten champion Hoosiers visited Gainesville in early March and took two of three from the Gators. Florida pitchers are still recovering from facing Indiana's Kyle Schwarber, who torched them for 10 hits in 14 at-bats (.714 average) in the three-game series.

No. 2-seed Austin Peay and No. 4-seed Valparaiso also have solid credentials. But if the SEC-tested Gators can play the way they did during a stretch of the conference schedule when they won 14 of 17, then they can beat anybody.

They proved that by sweeping a three-game series against South Carolina in early April.

But for all the talk about possibilities, the best shot for the Gators to play deep into the postseason starts with Crawford as the tone-setter.

When Crawford is throwing strikes with his mid-90s fastball and keeping hitters guessing with off-speed stuff, he is awfully tough to hit. A good sign for the Gators is that Crawford is coming off one of his sharpest outings on May 16 at Georgia.

In a 4-2 win over the Bulldogs -- Crawford received a no-decision -- he allowed five hits and two runs over 6 2/3 innings. Crawford struck out five and walked none, throwing 62 of his 93 pitches for strikes.

He followed that performance with a crisp five-inning outing last week in an intra-squad scrimmage and a strong bullpen session on Tuesday.

"He's looked as good as he has since he's been here,'' O'Sullivan said Thursday. "I feel good with him on the mound right now."

There have been times this season when those words would not have escaped O'Sullivan's lips.

In Crawford's 14 starts, he only pitched six or more innings in half of them, often done in by one bad inning when he fell behind hitters and lost his aggressive approach.

Gators radio analyst Jeff Cardozo, a former UF pitcher and one of 21 pitchers in school history to throw a complete game in the NCAA Tournament, said Crawford's talent remains obvious.

Through his up-and-down season Crawford's right arm has provided hope each turn in the rotation.

"When he's in rhythm and able to locate his fastball, he is capable of having the best stuff in the conference,'' Cardozo said. "He's Florida's No. 1 starter for a reason. This is his time to show that, go deep in the ballgame and set the tone for the rest of the regional."

No one would like to see that happen more than Crawford, who shined over the summer for the USA National Collegiate Team. His best start statistically this season came March 30 when he tossed a two-hit shutout against Ole Miss, striking out eight and walking two.

During the two-week layoff since his last start, Crawford has focused on mechanics and regaining some of the rhythm he displays when in control.

"I feel confident,'' he said Thursday. "I gave my arm a lot of rest. I had a good start against Georgia so I feel like I have a lot of momentum coming into this start. So it will be great to come out and give the team a good start heading into the postseason."

A former catcher who works closely with UF's pitching staff, no one has to tell O'Sullivan what a dominant pitcher in the postseason can do for a team's chances to reach Omaha.

He witnessed one in action 364 days ago in Gainesville. He hopes to see another one on Friday when Crawford takes the mound.

"I think the tournament is set up that way,'' O'Sullivan said. "Two guys get hot as starters and your offense gets going a little bit, anything can happen. You are five wins away from getting back to Omaha. There are always some funny things that happen in this tournament.

"To run Jonathon out there [Friday] with they way hes been throwing the last few times out, I feel really good."


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