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Karsten Whitson can provide the Gators with a huge postseason boost if he pitches the way he did Sunday against LSU.

Thursday May 29, 2014Whitson Aims to Factor Prominently in Gators' Postseason Plans

Karsten Whitson can provide the Gators with a huge postseason boost if he pitches the way he did Sunday against LSU.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There has been days when Karsten Whitson grips the ball, uncorks his right arm toward the plate, and then watches the pitch dart toward a concession stand.

Other days, Whitson repeats the exercise and the ball dances precisely to where he intended. That is the life of a pitcher, one of the sports world’s most fragile species.

All one needs to do in Whitson’s case is examine the Florida right-hander’s last two starts. In Florida’s final SEC regular-season home game on May 10, a 16-2 loss to Vanderbilt, Whitson couldn’t make it out of the first inning.

He walked the first three batters he faced, and after recording just one out and throwing 26 pitches – 15 of them balls – his day was done when Commodores shortstop Vince Conde cranked a three-run homer out of McKethan Stadium.

Fifteen days later Whitson got another turn in the starting rotation, and not in some mid-week game against a team you had to look up on a map. It was in Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship in Hoover, Ala., against LSU.

Karsten Whitson, Taylor Gushue

The Tigers entered as one of the hottest hitting teams in the country and for six innings, they couldn’t score a run against Whitson. The good Whitson showed up, allowing three hits and three walks in six shutout innings of a 2-0 LSU victory.

As the Gators prepare to open the NCAA Tournament on Friday night against College of Charleston, Whitson’s start against LSU delivered a confidence boost.

“It was just one of those days where he was on and clicking,” Gators catcher Taylor Gushue said. “It was exciting to put my glove up and have him hit it the whole day. With his fastball and slider, he’s pretty hard to beat. You’re going to see a lot more of that.”

The Gators will take it.

They know that if Whitson is on, they have another weapon that could extend their season all the way to Omaha. After missing the 2013 season due to surgery on his right shoulder, Whitson (1-1, 3.86 ERA, 37 1/3 IP, 34 H, 23 BB, 21 SO) has been hit or miss in 2014.

Whitson’s outing Sunday was his longest of the season. A redshirt junior drafted in the first round by San Diego in 2010, Whitson opted to attend UF and immediately showed why he was one of the country’s top prep pitchers at Chipley (Fla.) High, winning eight games as a freshman and helping the Gators advance to the College World Series.

He began to experience arm trouble as a sophomore and remains an intriguing prospect as he attempts to regain his form.

“He’s gone through a lot of stuff,’’ teammate Harrison Bader said Thursday. “His start this past weekend was huge for us. Even though we didn’t win, he did a [heck] of a job.”

Whitson’s performance against LSU was also huge for him. While his 13 career wins lead the Florida pitching staff, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound power pitcher has won only five games over the past three years.

But if he can duplicate Sunday’s outing in the postseason, he likely will add to that total.

“It was something I needed,’’ Whitson said. “It gives me a lot of confidence heading into this weekend and hopefully I can continue that. I know what I’m capable of. My confidence hasn’t wavered at all; it’s just been a tough season. All that’s in the past now – one good outing here, a good outing there, and now you kind of start building some momentum for yourself.

“Now is the right time.”

While freshman Logan Shore is scheduled to start against College of Charleston and Bobby Poyner, Aaron Rhodes, Danny Young, A.J. Puk, Eric Hanhold and Brett Morales offer Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan options – each has at least four starts this season – Whitson’s presence cannot be overlooked.

O’Sullivan has maintained throughout the season that for the Gators to get where they want to go – a fourth trip in five years to the CWS – Whitson needs to play an important role.

“I’ve always had confidence in Karsten,’’ O’Sullivan said. “That’s why I keep running him out there. It’s in there. I was really pleased with how he threw [Sunday]. He stepped up. That was the Karsten that we’ve all come to expect.”

Whitson struck out just one LSU batter, but his fastball was consistently in the 91-94 mph range and his slider was crisp, keeping the Tigers off balance and uncomfortable. Whitson threw only 66 pitches and kept the ball down in the strike zone.

He said he did nothing drastically different other than come right after hitters.

“The biggest thing for me is just trying to keep things simple and attack the heart of the plate and try to put the ball on the ground,’’ he said.

O’Sullivan is uncertain of what role Whitson will serve in this weekend’s Gainesville Regional that also features Long Beach State and North Carolina. The Dirtbags and Tar Heels play in Friday’s first game at 1 p.m.

However, there is no uncertainty about what Whitson wants – a chance to pitch and help Florida advance.

His career has taken its share of detours, but when Whitson pitches like he did Sunday, he reminds everyone that his right arm can still produce special results.

“Last outing I didn’t throw too well here at home,” Whitson said. “I threw one inning [in relief] at Tennessee that was pretty good. I definitely wanted to throw well and wanted to kind of show everybody that I can be someone that can help this team.

“I know just kind of looking at it objectively, when you have a guy that can help your team tremendously, especially in a postseason run, if that’s me or anybody on our team, you would want them to be pitching as well as they can because it’s going to help the team. I don’t really feel any pressure to do that, but I do realize that I can bring some things to the table and help this team get to the next stop.”


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