Crawford unexpected UF baseball MVP

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan was expecting very little from right-hander Jonathan Crawford this season.

The Gators have one of the best pitching staffs in the nation with preseason All-American starters Hudson Randall, Brain Johnson and Karsten Whitson and a stocked bullpen led by Greg Larson, Steven Rodriguez and Austin Maddox. Crawford, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound sophomore who threw 3.2 innings last season, was at best going to be a mid-week starter.

Instead, he ended up being a key piece of the Gators’ weekend rotation.

When injuries kept Randall, Johnson and Whitson on the bench, Crawford filled in capably at all spots in the weekend rotation and went 4-2 with a 3.67 ERA in 11 starts. He gave up 26 runs, struck out 51 and walked 18 in 56.1 innings and UF went 8-3 in games he started.

"I haven’t had many staffs like this where you can win when you throw a guy that had three innings the year before and you look up and he’s starting some Friday night games," O’Sullivan said Monday as the 3rd-ranked Gators (40-16, 18-12 SEC) prepared for Tuesday's Southeastern Conference tournament game against Auburn (30-26, 13-17). "He, arguably, for me is one of our MVPs this year to be honest with you. He has stepped in in some really tough situations and has pitched really good for us."

When Whitson went down early in the season with a tired arm, Crawford filled in with series-finale starts against Miami, Florida Gulf Coast, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Ole Miss. The Gators went 4-1 in those games.

Crawford, who will start Tuesday against Auburn in UF’s tournament opener, also started games in place of Randall and Johnson.

"It almost seems like a different role every other week, and he’s done a really, really good job," O’Sullivan said.

Crawford’s role for the post-season beyond Tuesday’s start against Auburn is uncertain. Randall, Johnson and Whitson will start the next three games the Gators play in the SEC tournament. UF is expected to play host to an NCAA regional, and O’Sullivan likely will go with a Randall-Johnson-Whitson rotation for that tournament as well. Crawford likely would get a start if the Gators needed to come out of the losers’ bracket in the SEC's double-elimination tournament.

For now, though, it’s Crawford’s job to beat Auburn, a team he has never faced. But he’s 3-1 against conference opponents this season, and his 2.56 ERA against SEC teams ranks fifth in the conference.

"He’s been a huge, huge key to our success," O’Sullivan said.