Florida Gators: Karsten Whitson

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.

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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.

[+] EnlargeKarsten Whitson
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIKarsten Whitson, a freshman All-American last season, returned from a tired arm on April 3.
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 5 weeks with what O’Sullivan said was a tired arm.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan is doing a lot of nitpicking these days.

When you’re the No. 1 team in the nation with a 16-1 record and have just tied a school record for consecutive victories, there’s really not much going wrong. So it’s all about fixing the little things as the Gators prepare to begin Southeastern Conference play this weekend at home against Vanderbilt.

"We’ve still got some things to work on," O’Sullivan said after the Gators’ 9-2 victory over sixth-ranked Florida State on Tuesday night in Gainesville. "We missed a couple signs [against FSU], a couple of hit-and-run signs, made the error there that scored the two runs. But overall, how disappointed can you be?"

Not very, because UF is playing pretty well in every aspect of the game. The Gators came out of the FSU game leading the nation in home runs (27) and are hitting .312 with 62 extra-base hits. Of the seven players with at least 50 at-bats, six are hitting .300 or better -- including catcher Mike Zunino (.417) and right fielder Preston Tucker (.313). Those two have a combined 13 home runs and 39 RBIs.

"The bottom half of our lineup is really swinging the bats well," said Tucker, who has six homers and 16 RBIs. "When the bats come alive there, and there’s guys on base for guys at the top of the lineup, it’s really tough to pitch to a lot of these hitters."

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[+] EnlargeKevin O'Sullivan
AP Photo/Eric FrancisKevin O'Sullivan's Florida Gators aim to find their way back to the championship series ... and win it.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has the best team in college baseball. Nearly everyone says so.

The Gators sit atop the Collegiate Baseball, Baseball America and USA Today/ESPN Coaches preseasons polls and had an NCAA-record seven players named preseason All-Americans by Louisville Slugger and Baseball America. Perfect Game tabbed five UF players preseason All-Americans, and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association had five on its list.

UF returns seven position starters and nine pitchers from last year’s team that finished runner-up to national champion South Carolina in the College World Series. The Gators also have 14 players who are projected to be drafted in June -- including seven who could go in the first three rounds.

With all that talent and experience, expectations for the Gators are pretty high in 2012. Just making the College World Series -- something UF has done only seven times in school history -- isn’t even enough. It’s almost national title or bust.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve had expectations. They’ve been through this before, especially last year,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Hopefully they’ll draw from their experiences last year and be well prepared for it this year. We’ve talked about it. It’s Florida. There’s expectations. We want to be in Omaha every year and compete for a national championships.”

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Gator baseball No. 1 in coaches poll

January, 26, 2012
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida baseball team stands atop the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll, which debuted Thursday. The Gators, got 17 first-place votes to rank ahead of No. 2 South Carolina with 12 first-place votes. Florida and South Carolina met in last season's College World Series final, in which the Gamecocks won their second consecutive national championship.

The Gators, who are also ranked No. 1 in Baseball America's and Collegiate Baseball's first polls of the season, went 53-19 last year. They open this season on Feb. 17 to begin a home series against No. 25 Cal State-Fullerton.

Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan returns a strong nucleus, including Southeastern Conference Player of the Year C Mike Zunino, senior OF Preston Tucker, slugger Austin Maddox and the entire weekend rotation (Hudson Randall, Brian Johnson and Karsten Whitson).

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