Strike One: Whitson’s Comeback Process Gains Momentum
CORAL GABLES, Fla.—Maybe someday, the identifying phrase “the unsigned No. 9 overall pick in 2010” won’t appear alongside Karsten Whitson’s name in every news story about him. Someday, if all goes as hoped, Whitson will forge a new identity—as the kid who bounced back from shoulder surgery to lead Florida’s staff in 2014, or as the hot-shot prospect climbing quickly through the minor leagues. Maybe someday, he’ll just be “major league pitcher Karsten Whitson,” and nobody will care about his draft history.
But right now, Whitson is the unsigned first-round pick who turned down $2.1 million from the Padres in favor of going to Florida, then got hurt. His recovery from last February’s cleanup surgery on his shoulder will continue to be heavily scrutinized until he proves that it’s behind him, and he’s back to his old self. He isn’t yet—but he’s getting there.
Whitson, a freshman All-American who helped lead the Gators to Omaha in 2011 but pitched just 33 innings while battling shoulder discomfort in 2012, returned to action last Sunday and allowed three runs on four hits and two walks in two innings. He was better in his second outing Sunday at Miami, lasting three innings and allowing two runs on three hits and a walk, striking out one. He threw 54 pitches, exiting in favor of a lefthander to start the fourth, as the Gators played the matchups and planned to make full use of their deep pitching staff in an important game. They wound up winning 6-4 to avoid getting swept.
“I felt pretty good,” Whitson said. “I think every time I’m able to get out on the mound, I feel a little more comfortable. I’m saying I felt better than I did last week, and this is a big win for us, so I’m happy about that.”
Scouts reported seeing Whitson work in the low to mid-80s in the fall, so it was very encouraging to see his fastball sit at 90-92 Sunday, hitting 93 a number of times and 94 once or twice.
“The big thing is I have to command my fastball, first and foremost,” Whitson said. “It doesn’t matter how good your slider is after that, you’ve really got to command No. 1, so that’s really the biggest thing for me.”
He only threw his 83-84 slider a few times, and one scout suggested he does not appear to be throwing it with conviction yet. In the third, he hung a slider up and in to Dale Carey—it did not move at all, and Carey smacked it over the left-field fence for a solo homer.
“I think it’s just finding it,” Whitson said of the slider. “I’ve been working awfully hard on getting the right arm slot and the right grip with it. I think once I get a few going there, I think it will be like, ‘Oh hey, there it is.’ I think it’s just about going out there more and more.”
One positive development from the fall was that Whitson had to focus on developing his changeup, because his throwing program did not permit him to throw sliders yet. He threw some good changeups in the 80-83 range Sunday, though he’s still working on repeating it consistently.
“I did work on that a lot in the fall, and it’s something that has gotten a lot better for me,” he said. “Hopefully I’m able to lean on it more and more, which is nice.”
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan stressed the need to be patient with Whitson, but he sounded satisfied with the righty’s progress.
“He was OK,” O’Sullivan said. “His stuff was better. He’s still got to find the strike zone a little more. But as we said before the season, this is a work in progress. It’s been almost two years since he’s been out there. So we’ll continue to run him out there, and he’ll get better each time out . . . Obviously he needs to be good for us to be good, and he will. But to expect him to come out and throw seven shutout innings his second start after missing almost two years is unrealistic.”
He’s already come a long way since the fall, which gives him plenty of optimism going forward.
“It’s a lot different throwing to your own hitters in the fall—now you’re thrown to the dogs,” Whitson said. “It’s good for my confidence to get out there and put up zeroes, and just be back out on the mound. It lets me know I’ve still got it, and hopefully I can continue to get better, because I need to get better at this point.”
Strike Two: Jaylin Davis Steals Rodon’s Limelight Again
RALEIGH, N.C.—Appalachian State sophomore center fielder Jaylin Davis has six home runs in his career. Four of them are off of Butler's Eric Stout, Cornell's Brian McAfee, The Citadel's Kevin Connell and the College of Charleston's Matt Pegler.
And the other two? Those came off of Carlos Rodon, North Carolina State's ace lefthander and the early leader in the clubhouse to be the No. 1 overall pick in the country come June.
Davis touched up Rodon for a three-run bomb during the teams' season-opener in 2013, a 6-3 Mountaineers win. He repeated the feat last Friday at Doak Field when he pounced on a flat slider from Rodon for another three-run jack, this time to bring his team to within a run in an eventual 6-5 Wolfpack win.
Davis also touched Rodon for a two-run single earlier in the loss. Put together, Davis is 3-for-7 against Rodon in two games, with two home runs and eight (of his career 41) RBIs.
So, what's Davis' secret to owning arguably the best pitcher in the country?
"The first pitch I hit off of him (last season), he threw me a slider that started out and came in," Davis explained on Saturday. "Last night it was the same thing. Same pitch. He stayed away from me most of the time, but the times he did come in it was sliders, backdoor sliders, so I just sat on that first pitch and I got it."
Davis, the Southern Conference's Freshman of the Year, hit .257 with 12 doubles, four triples, four homers and 36 RBIs last year.
In addition to Appalachian State, Davis was recruited by Elon and Western Carolina, but says the decision to become a Mountaineer was easy.
"I liked the coaches that were there," he said, "and then this campus, I just fell in love with it."
After stealing the limelight in Raleigh in back-to-back years, Davis might be falling in love with N.C. State’s campus, too.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Chris Ellis
Mississippi righthander Chris Ellis was the talk of fall ball in 2012, when he showed the kind of electric stuff that led coaches and scouts to predict he could wind up a first-round pick. He headed into his sophomore year as the Sunday starter, but he re-aggravated an old abdominal strain in a Week One win against Texas Christian, sidelining him for half the season. When he returned to action, he never found his rhythm, finishing 1-2, 5.57 in 21 innings.
“When he came back and was healthy, we struggled to find a role for him, and it was disappointing,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “Looking back at last year, I’m disappointed we didn’t handle it better. Then he went out in the summer and had a great summer in Cape Cod.”
His showing in the Cape rekindled some of the buzz Ellis had generated the previous fall. There was no questioning his talent. All he had to do was harness it during the spring.
Ellis is now the Rebels’ Friday starter as a junior, and through two weeks, it appears he has put it all together. He has opened the season with 15 consecutive shutout innings, allowing just nine hits and two walks while striking out eight. Friday against a very offensive Georgia State team, Ellis threw a complete-game shutout, allowing just five hits and no walks in a 3-0 win.
“Chris will throw the fastball low to mid-90s, with a true curveball and a changeup,” Bianco said. “He reminds me of a guy we had a few years ago named Will Kline, because he can really pitch off any of the three pitches. He really had a great changeup on Friday night, which I think helped him against this Georgia State team which is so offensive, and gets so many good swings off the fastball.”
Bianco said Ellis has such good feel for his changeup that he will often throw it against righthanded hitters, which not too many college righthanders do. A scout who saw him Friday said his changeup was better than his curveball that night, but the scout was most impressed with his ability to command his fastball, which he said ranged from 88-92, sitting mostly at 90-91. Ellis has often run his heater into the mid-90s in the past, but if he can pitch with a bit less velocity but more command, he can win a lot of games. He succeeded at inducing a lot of weak contact early in counts Friday, helping him keep his pitch count down.
Ellis also has a good weapon against righties in his power curveball.
“The curveball’s hard—it’s around 80-81 mph, and it’s really a 12-to-6 and it’s sharp,” Bianco said. “We’ve played with the slider with him, at the beginning of the spring, but it’s given him some blisters, so we’ve gone back to the curveball. When he gets to pro ball, he may pick up the slider again or maybe a cutter. He’ll pick up things quickly because he’s got such good feel for the ball.”
At 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, Ellis looks the part of a blue-chip prospect, and he has the stuff to match. By the time the draft rolls around, he might have a blue-chip resume of performance, too.