Maddox a hit on the mound for UF

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan signed Austin Maddox out of Jacksonville (Fla.) Eagle’s View Academy, he knew he was getting one of the nation’s top hitters -- but he had no idea he was eventually getting one of the nation’s top pitchers, too.

Maddox started his Florida career in 2010 by slugging his way to Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year and All-America honors while playing third base, DH, first base and catcher. He hit .333 and led the team in homers (17) and RBIs (72). Save for some troubles defensively, it was everything O’Sullivan had hoped he’d get from the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Maddox.

But O’Sullivan was really intrigued by Maddox’s arm. The right-hander threw in the low 90s and O’Sullivan knew he had potential as a pitcher, so they slowly started working with Maddox in the fall prior to his sophomore season.

“He was a hitter first and a pitcher second (coming out of high school),” O’Sullivan said as the Gators (42-18) began preparing for this weekend’s NCAA regional at McKethan Stadium. “We really didn’t do a whole lot with him his freshman year at all pitching-wise. Sophomore year in the fall it was very limited. It was one inning here, three or four days off, another inning there, and it just kind of evolved into that the second half of his sophomore year.”

Maddox ended up making 21 appearances out of the bullpen as a sophomore, going 3-0 with a 0.67 ERA and five saves. He was still an everyday player, too, starting 62 games at either first, third, catcher or DH and hitting .280 with six homers and 35 RBI.

This season, however, Maddox has appeared in just 18 games as a non-pitcher: five at first base and 13 as DH. He’s now a pitcher first -- and has developed into one of the nation’s best closers. He’s added a slider to his arsenal, and that has made him even tougher to hit.

“I’ve been working on my off-speed pitching between last year and this year, and it’s paid off,” Maddox said. “I went from a two-seam grip to a four-seam grip, and I feel I can locate it better and throw harder.”

Maddox has been so effective that he’s just one save shy of tying the school’s single-season record of 13, which is held by Danny Wheeler (1994) and Josh Fogg (1996). Maddox was 12-for-12 in save opportunities this season until he gave up five runs in the ninth inning against Vanderbilt last weekend in an SEC tournament semifinal.

But that setback -- one of the few he’s experienced on the mound -- will only serve as extra motivation for the next time he throws, which likely will be sometime this weekend. UF opens regional play against Bethune-Cookman at 7 p.m. Friday.

“He’s about as competitive a pitcher as I’ve ever coached,” O’Sullivan said. “He wants the ball all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Tuesday or a Friday. He’s always wanting to compete, and he’s developing himself into arguably into one of the best closers, if not the best closer, in the country.”

Maddox is 3-3 with a 2.28 ERA and he’s given up only 14 runs and struck out 54 in 51.1 innings. Opponents are hitting just .207 against him. He has 17 career saves, which ties him for fifth on the school’s all-time list with Jamie McAndrew (1987-89).

He’s also one of two UF players (Brian Johnson) who are among the 10 finalists for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year award.

Maddox’s future, though, is as a pitcher. He’s expected to be among the first 200 picks in next week’s Major League Baseball amateur draft. That’s higher than his selection out of high school, when the Tampa Bay Rays took him in the 37th round. That was much lower than projected, but there were concerns about what it would take for Maddox to sign out of high school.

“The strength of his game is his right arm, and obviously his career has kind of taken that path,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re very, very fortunate to have him, and he’s going to have a good, long career.”