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Gators starter Aaron Rhodes, left, talks with catcher Taylor Gushue during a recent outing.

Saturday May 3, 2014Rhodes Feels at Home with Gators, in Starting Rotation

Gators starter Aaron Rhodes, left, talks with catcher Taylor Gushue during a recent outing.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The conference room where Florida's coaching staff was meeting was about 60 feet away, or approximately the same distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate.

As Aaron Rhodes sat on a couch this week inside Florida's baseball offices, he recalled a meeting of his own inside the same room.

"That was the first time I talked to Sully,'' Rhodes said.

Gators head coach Kevin O'Sullivan had seen Rhodes pitch his senior season at Venice High during a tournament in Gainesville. The Gators were intrigued enough to send assistant Craig Bell to Venice the following week to take another look.

Bell left impressed by the right arm owned by Rhodes.

Aaron Rhodes

"He was definitely a winner for us,'' Venice coach Craig Faulkner said. "When he took the mound, he wasn't giving up a lot of runs, that's for sure."

Rhodes was drawing interest from other programs, including Santa Fe College, located a few miles from UF's campus. Saints coach Johnny Wiggs made his share of calls to Venice, and when Rhodes' father, Jeff, called Aaron at practice one day to say they should head to Gainesville as soon as possible, at first he thought it was to check out Santa Fe.

Instead, the Gators had called.

"I hopped in my truck real quick and raced home and drove up here,'' Rhodes said. "This is my dream school. As soon as they offered me, I said yes."

The decision has benefited both parties. A lifelong Gators fan, Rhodes is 5-2 with a 2.08 ERA heading into today's start at Alabama. Meanwhile, the Gators discovered a future piece of their starting rotation.

Rhodes was named SEC Pitcher of the Week on Tuesday after his one-hit shutout against Missouri. Rhodes stuck out six, walked two, allowing only a second-inning double. He retired the final 18 batters to help the Gators stay atop the SEC standings.

It was the third start of Rhodes' career.

Rhodes opened the season in the bullpen. He pitched middle relief, closed (two saves) and did whatever else O'Sullivan asked. Rhodes has been his best in SEC play, going 3-1 with a 1.84 ERA (29 strikeouts and five walks in 29 1/3 innings).

Always trying to find the right combination on his pitching staff, O'Sullivan moved Rhodes into the starting rotation at midseason.

"We've always known he has the ability,'' O'Sullivan said. "I don't really remember him having a bad outing for us. He's been really good in a lot of different roles."

*****

Rhodes and success are far from strangers.

He followed in his father's footsteps in high school. Jeff Rhodes was a two-sport standout at Venice High in the early 1970s whose pitching coach at Miami-Dade North Community College was Joe Arnold, Florida's former head coach.

Jeff left Miami-Dade and signed with Jacksonville (Ala.) State, where he spent a season before signing with the Cubs. Following his stint in the Cubs' minor-league system, Jeff returned to Venice to start a business career.

By the time Aaron came along, Jeff was far removed from his playing days but still taught high school kids about pitching.

The lessons wore off on Aaron, who has often used the same sidearm delivery his dad relied on.

"I would be out there watching in diapers,'' Rhodes said. "I would be going through all the motions while he was teaching them. He says I throw a little harder than he did. Other than that, we're identical."

Faulkner, a former catcher at LSU who spent a decade in Baltimore's farm system, is in his 18th season at Venice. His college teammate, former major-league reliever Mark Guthrie, is Venice's pitching coach.

Like his career at UF, Rhodes pitched out of the bullpen and started in high school. By the time he was a senior in 2011, Rhodes was the Indians' ace, tossing a no-hitter with 16 strikeouts in the district tournament.

Venice has won back-to-back state titles.

"Aaron was a strong part of building the team that actually won those state titles," Faulkner said. "He is a dominant pitcher. He's throwing a lot harder than he did here. He would hit 90, 91 [mph] here, but he's always had pinpoint accuracy. He could throw in or out.

"He's the kind of kid that wants the ball and wants to pitch. There is never a time when he wants to come out of the game. He is a bear to get out of the game."

Rhodes was redshirted in 2012. Florida had a loaded pitching staff and advanced to its third consecutive College World Series. Rhodes pitched in 13 games last season, tinkering with his delivery and never finding his comfort zone.

Still, the Gators were certain they had a pitcher instead of a thrower.

"We know those kids coming out of that high school program are going to be ready to play and contribute,'' O'Sullivan said. "He's got a pretty good baseball IQ. Like most kids, when they are feeling good about themselves and are confident, they tend to perform better. I think with Aaron, when he's feeling good about himself, he's really good."

*****

Rhodes' confidence received a booster shot when he pitched extended innings during a relief outing at Texas A&M in late March. O'Sullivan handed him the ball for his first career start on April 12 at South Carolina.

Rhodes pitched five solid innings in a 4-3 extra-inning win. He followed that performance with a victory against Georgia and his one-hitter against Missouri.

This is the script he had in his head.

"I've always wanted to start here,'' Rhodes said. "I've always loved starting. The opportunity came up and he threw me in there."

Based on how his start against the Tigers began, a one-hit shutout seemed unlikely. Rhodes walked the leadoff hitter and admitted he lacked focus when he stepped onto the mound.

O'Sullivan immediately saw it and visited the mound after one batter, something he said he has not done very often in his career.

"He just wasn't cutting the ball loose. You could just tell by his body language that he wasn't attacking the leadoff guy,'' O'Sullivan said. "I just wanted him to bear down. The thing with him, he's got a tendency in his mind that he's got to pace himself. When he comes out of the pen, he just cuts the ball loose.

"I don't want him to pace himself. I want him to go hard. If that's five innings, six innings or ends up being nine innings, don't pace yourself because you can lose a game in the first inning as well as you can in the ninth. That was the message."

He didn't have to repeat it.

"Something clicked,'' Rhodes said. "I didn't want to come out of the game."

Rhodes settled in and does what he does best. When he's on, O'Sullivan said Rhodes commands his pitches with precision, throwing his curve and change-up for strikes and then catching batters off guard with a fastball that can creep into the mid-90s.

At 5-foot-11, Rhodes is compact and difficult for batters to pick up with his three-quarters slot release point. He also fields his position well.

Add them all up, and Rhodes gives the Gators a good chance to win every time he is on the mound.

He certainly did in his last start and will try again today (4 p.m.) at Alabama.

Faulkner isn't the least surprised.

"We've known him since he was a pretty tiny fella,'' he said. "It's special when you watch a kid come all the way up in Little League and now he's doing it on the big stage."

 

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