Florida Plays It Safe With Karsten Whitson

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OMAHA—This is what Karsten Whitson came to Florida to do: Start in the College World Series. Strike out hitters like Vanderbilt's Aaron Westlake. And help pitch the Gators to within three victories of a national championship.

Of course, if Whitson were writing the script, he'd have stayed on the mound deeper in the game. In fact, if most other college coaches were writing the script, Whitson would have had a chance to work out of a two-out, two-on jam in the fifth inning.

Not at Florida. Whitson, the Padres' unsigned 2010 first-round pick, hasn't pitched more than 61⁄3 innings in a game all season. His highest pitch count is 92, and coach Kevin O'Sullivan pulled him after 83 against Vandy in the College World Series. Gators reliever Steven Rodriguez wound up finishing the game, a 3-1 victory, getting one fewer out while registering more strikeouts (seven to five) and throwing just 50 pitches.

"I was just trying to keep us in it," Whitson said. "My slider was a little low in the zone the first couple innings. Then I did a good job of changing my sights and bringing it up a little bit, and I was able to keep hitters off balance.

"Sully came and got me and brought in (Rodriguez), and you can't say enough about what he did today. So it was good for him to pick me up."

Handled With Care

Like any competitor, Whitson would like to finish what he starts. But he is accustomed to O'Sullivan's quick hook, which stems from several factors, not least of which is Florida's deep bullpen. O'Sullivan also has roots in pro ball (he was a pitching coach in the Twins system in the late 1990s) and has handled pitchers carefully throughout his coaching career with the Gators and previously at Clemson.

"It was something I had to learn when I got here—there was a lot of stuff I had to learn," Whitson said. "The great thing about Sully is he takes care of his pitchers, takes care of his staff. He understands the big picture.

"I know I've only got 85 or 90 pitches, so I have to go as hard as I can when I'm out there, whether I'm going nine innings or three innings. I know anyone we have coming out of our bullpen can get the job done."

Whitson also noted that last year in high school he threw just 55 innings. He's past 90 in 2011 but still has a fresh arm and crisp stuff. In this outing, that included a fastball that sat between 92-95 mph and a slider that touched 87 when he needed it most, striking out Westlake with a runner at third in the third inning. He also has honed his changeup this season, using it effectively to lefthanded hitters such as Westlake.

"He's a really good hitter; you have to be careful with him," Whitson said, going deeper into the third-inning confrontation. "I started him with a changeup, and he swung through that. I struck him out in Nashville with the changeup, so that worked again. Then I was trying to pump the fastball in and out, see if I could get one by him, but he was on it. He fouled off a changeup and we're up to eight or nine pitches, and he hasn't seen my slider yet. So I was able to throw him a really good one and get a big out."

Whitson didn't last long enough to earn the victory, but at 8-0, 2.43, he's had an excellent freshman season. The fact the Gators haven't had to lean heavily on him has made him stronger and the team better. Florida's careful use of Whitson, likely to be a first-rounder again in two years, stands out in a sport often assailed for the way pitchers are handled.

Whitson came to Florida in part because of that reputation. It could be the start of a talent cycle that makes Florida a national power for years.

"He doesn't pitch like a freshman," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "He's a big, strong kid. He throws a big, heavy ball like he's throwing bowling balls to the plate, and he keeps coming. Where I thought we had him is when Sully took him out.

"But he's poised. He's got command of his fastball. He throws a breaking ball under the string, below the knees, makes it difficult on the righthanded hitter because you have to gear up for a power fastball. When he throws the slider, he gets you to cheat a little bit.

"You know, he's a first-rounder. You're not supposed to keep kids like that, and they did. That's why Florida's pretty good."