GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It looks like Florida is finally going to have its complete pitching staff -- one which was projected to be the best in the nation -- just in time for the Gators to make their postseason run.
Fatigued arms cost the Gators two of their top three starters for varying periods of time this season, and their closer is coming off a mild bout of tendinitis, but Hudson Randall, Karsten Whitson and Austin Maddox are healthy heading into the final two weekends of Southeastern Conference play. That puts the fifth-ranked Gators at full strength for the first time since before the season began.
And that solidifies Florida (36-13, 14-10 SEC) as the favorite to win the national championship.
“We’ve put ourselves in position to where we hoped we would be,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Now we’ve got two big series left, obviously, and this week it’s a big weekend. We don’t have to watch the scoreboard. The bottom line is if we do what we’re capable of doing we’ll be right there in the hunt at the end.”
This weekend’s series against Mississippi State (30-18, 12-12), which begins today, is the just the second time Florida has had its weekend rotation of Randall, Whitson and Brian Johnson intact since the first series of the season against Cal State Fullerton. Whitson threw only 13 pitches before being pulled in his second start of the season and missed 5½ weeks with what O’Sullivan said was a tired arm.
Whitson (3-0, 3.43 ERA), who was a freshman All-American last season, returned against North Florida on April 3. The sophomore right-hander pitched only one inning in each of his next two starts (North Florida, LSU) and totaled just 8.2 innings in his next four appearances.
Randall, a second-team preseason All-American, was 3-1 through his first seven starts but missed the next 22 days with a tired arm. The junior right-hander returned to the rotation on April 22 in a Sunday start against Georgia, but has been UF’s Thursday/Friday starter in the two SEC series since.
Randall and Whitson were at 100 percent for the Kentucky series, and it marked the first time since the Fullerton series that the Randall-Whitson-Johnson trio was able to pitch in a three-game SEC series. Randall held the Wildcats to six hits and three runs in 6.2 innings to pick up the victory on Friday, and Whitson got a no-decision despite limiting UK to six hits and one run in 4.2 innings in a game UF eventually won on Saturday.
But the Gators were without Maddox, who left the Arkansas game on April 29 because his arm didn’t feel right. The junior right-hander was diagnosed with tendonitis and hasn’t pitched since, but O’Sullivan said Maddox -- who has 12 saves this season and is one shy of tying the school’s single-season mark for saves -- threw a bullpen session on Tuesday and has been cleared to pitch this weekend.
That’ll give the Gators a completely healthy rotation and closer to go along with a bullpen that is 17-8 with 15 saves and a 2.24 ERA in 212.1 innings. And UF has found a fourth starter upon which it can rely in sophomore right-hander Jonathon Crawford (4-1, 3.46), who filled in capably for Randall and Whitson.
“I’m very pleased with how we’ve been throwing the ball,” O’Sullivan said. “Getting Whitson back [has helped], and we’ve got Crawford as the swingman. We’ve been throwing the ball extremely well, probably as good as we have since I’ve been here, from top to bottom.”