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Gators Baseball Notebook: Starting rotation starting to stabilize; Maddox expected back against Mississippi State

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On the way to a second consecutive trip to the College World Series last season, there was one constant for Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan.

He could nearly always count on Hudson Randall, Brian Johnson and Karsten Whitson to fill out the starting rotation for a weekend series.

That hasn’t been the case in 2012 as Randall missed time due to a tired arm and Whitson missed nearly two months to get his arm in shape following a slow start.

However, Randall and Whitson are back to join Johnson in what remains one of the country’s top rotations when healthy. With Mississippi State coming to town for a three-game series starting Friday, O’Sullivan likes the way his pitching staff is shaping up after the trio pitched well at Kentucky a week ago.

“It was vintage Randall. I think Randall probably threw the best he has thrown all year at Kentucky,’’ he said. “I was really, really pleased. His change-up was outstanding and his cutter was really, really good. It’s a very difficult lineup to throw to, too.

“ I think Karsten found out a lot about himself … maybe not having his best stuff, but he competed like no other. Can he throw better than he did? Yeah, but to go and pitch almost five innings and to give up one run, I feel really, really good with where he is at. He’ll throw better as we go along. I’m looking forward to getting him out there this weekend.”

In last weekend’s series against the Wildcats – Florida won two of three – Randall limited Kentucky to six hits and three runs in 6 2/3 innings for his fifth win of the season. The performance matched Randall’s second-longest outing of the season.

A control pitcher who relies on his movement to keep hitters off-balance, Randall said he is beginning to feel like the 2011 version of himself when he finished 11-3 and threw a team-leading 124 1/3 innings. He has thrown 58 2/3 innings in 10 starts this season.

“With this many innings built up, I feel pretty comfortable on the mound now,’’ Randall said Thursday. “The ball has some life toward the end of it. At this point in my career, I’m used to throwing a lot of innings. I’m ready for the end part of the season. I’m looking forward to it.”

Meanwhile, Whitson received a no-decision in his start at Kentucky, giving up six hits and one run in 4 2/3 innings. He walked three and struck out two. After throwing 97 1/3 innings as a true freshman, Whitson has only pitched 21 innings as a sophomore.

With his arm strength returning, catcher Mike Zunino sees Whitson starting to round back to form.

“I think he is really close,’’ Zunino said. “In Kentucky he had a great start. I think he threw his change-up really well, which he needs that third pitch. He’s getting there with the command on his slider. His [velocity] is definitely there. He’s improving every start I’ve seen him throw.”

If Randall and Whitson continue to get sharper and Johnson (5-4, 4.29, team-high 65 IP) remains a stabilizing force for the rotation, O’Sullivan will be much more confident heading into the postseason.

“We feel really good with where [fourth starter Jonathon] Crawford is at, too,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I think the most important thing for me is that we’re going to need all four of those guys going into the postseason. I feel really good about our bullpen right now. I feel very comfortable going into postseason eight or nine deep.”

MADDOX READY: The last time we saw Gators closer Austin Maddox on the mound was April 29 against Arkansas when O’Sullivan removed him from the game on a 3-0 count because he didn’t like something he saw in Maddox’s delivery.

Maddox was diagnosed with a case of tendinitis and missed last weekend’s series at Kentucky as Steven Rodriguez picked up a pair of saves in closer duty. Maddox (2-2, 1.58 ERA) is 12-for-12 in save opportunities and needs only one more to tie the school record shared by Danny Wheeler (1994) and Josh Fogg (1998).

“He threw [a bullpen session] on Tuesday,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He’ll be ready to go this weekend.”

MR. GLOVE: One of the most impressive stats you will probably see in college baseball this season is this one: Gators shortstop Nolan Fontana has more home runs (nine) than errors (three).

Of course, that’s not a surprise to those who watch Fontana play regularly. For his career Fontana has only made 19 errors – and 12 of those came during his sophomore season.

“I don’t know how many shortstops happen to have more home runs than errors,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He is probably the best defensive shortstop in the country. He has been a tremendous player for us. He was the type of player that you went to see the first time and you liked him. You went to see him play a second time and you really liked him. By the third time you loved him and you needed to have him.”

SENIOR NIGHT: The Gators will honor six seniors during pre-game ceremonies on Friday night. Players Greg Larson, Preston Tucker, Daniel Pigott, Jeff Moyer and Tyler Thompson will be honored as will student manager Dustin Kline.

Pigott expects it to be a memorable night as Florida opens its final regular-season home series of the season.

“It’s going to be a little nostalgic but hopefully we’ll be here for a couple more weekends,’’ Pigott said. “That’s the plan.”

Pigott leads the team in hitting (.335) and has six home runs and 29 RBIs. After starting the season in left field, he took over in center when starter Thompson suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-March.

Thompson is home rehabbing the injury and is not expected to attend Friday’s ceremony.

Asked Thursday if Thompson might return for a fifth season of eligibility, O’Sullivan remained open to the possibility.

“I think we’re going to evaluate that at the end of the year,’’ he said. “I think he is just seeing how his knee feels and how it progresses and seeing how quickly it progresses. He’s had a tough go of it. He’s had a bunch of injuries. I feel really bad for him, but I’m trying to look at the positives. He’s had a great career. I’d love for him to come back for his fifth year, but we’ll evaluate that at the end of the year.”

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