Karsten Whitson at best in sweep of Alabama

On a warm Sunday afternoon with very little breeze, Florida Gators (31-10, 14-4 SEC) starting righty Karsten Whitson spent his Easter fanning batters on the way to a 2-1 win over the Alabama Crimson Tide (25-18, 8-10 SEC).

Whitson surpassed his previous career high of 5.1 innings pitched by going 6.2 innings and sending Alabama Crimson Tide batters back to the pine seven times.

Whitson joked about how it felt to reach the seventh inning for the first time in his pitching career as a Gator.

“When I came back into the dugout after the fifth, the guys were kind of heckling me like, ‘Hey you’re still in,’” Whitson said. “Then when I was out there I turned to [second baseman Josh Adams] and I said, ‘Am I really out here right now?”

The undefeated freshman starter from Chipley, Fla., may have sparked some jokes in the dugout, but his dominance was no laughing matter for Alabama hitters. Surrendering a mere three hits on 84 pitches, Whitson struck out seven to surpass his personal best in SEC play of six.

After starting the seventh inning by hitting Alabama’s Jared Reaves and giving up a single to Austen Smith, Whitson received a mound visit from catcher Mike Zunino and coach Kevin O’Sullivan. Showing incredible poise in a tight 2-0 game, Whitson struck out the next two batters and ultimately limited the damage to only one earned run.

“The momentum was kind of changing their way, so I just had to buckle down,” Whitson said. “In worst case scenario, I figured I’d keep the ball low to try to get a ground ball and get a double play.”

Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan had high praise for his freshman as well, touting Whitson’s performance as “his best all year.”

“He’s been working awfully hard in between all his starts and we’ve been waiting for an outing like this and I know he has too,” O’Sullivan said.

He said that part of the process for young pitchers like Whitson is letting him work through tight situations like the one he faced with the game on the line in the seventh inning.

“You’ve got to give them a little rope and show them you have confidence in them, and we have confidence in him,” he said. “To be as good as we want to be at the end of the year and for him to keep progressing like we know he should, we have to let him wiggle out of some of those things.”

In a game so intense that even the trees at McKethan Stadium seemed to stand still at attention in the sun-beaten outfield, the Florida bullpen gave the Gators a reason to relax. After replacing Whitson in the top of the seventh, relief pitcher Steven Rodriguez fanned Alabama’s Allen Dye with runners on first and second to escape more damage.

In the top of the eighth, after surrendering a leadoff bunt single to Alabama’s Josh Sanders, Rodriguez whipped out a beautiful pickoff move and froze Sanders at first as the crowd erupted into relieved applause.

“I was so excited about that one because it was the first of the year [for a Gators’ left-handed pitcher] so I was really pumped to actually get that one,” Rodriguez said.

The Gators’ bullpen as a whole gave up zero earned runs and only three hits in 2.1 innings of relief after Whitson’s dominant performance, capping off a weekend in which the Gators’ pitching staff posted an ERA of 1.00 in the series.

Rodriguez said the impressive outing was crucial to the confidence to the team as a whole, especially following the inconsistency of the Gators’ bullpen throughout the season.

“The bullpen has been giving up some runs lately, and during the season you are going to have your ups and downs,” he said. “As long as we put it together when we have to, that’s all that matters.”

O’Sullivan agreed.

“Every pitcher was important today in a 2-1 game,” he said. “I think two guys that go under the radar a bit are [Rodriguez] and Greg Larson. Those guys have just continued every time out to give us quality outings, whether it’s one out or three or four outs. They just continue to keep doing a great job for us.”

In a game so tight on the scoreboard, Nolan Fontana was a man amongst boys in the batter’s box. Fontana bashed in the team’s lone two RBIs and posted his second three-hit game of the series by going 3-4 with a double and no strikeouts. Fontana, now batting .322 on the season, helped the Gators post a .347 batting average for the weekend despite only hanging two runs on the Crimson Tide in the series finale.

Despite being scrappy at the plate to work Crimson Tide pitcher Jonathan Smart (2-1, 2.40 ERA) into several hitter’s counts, Fontana pointed to the importance of Whitson’s ability to throw strikes in a game lacking offense.

“It definitely makes our job a lot easier,” he said. “Any pitcher that comes out and throws strike after strike is great to play behind because it feels like the game is in our hands.”

By busting out the brooms and sweeping the Tide this weekend, the No. 5 Gators improve to a 14-4 SEC record and remain tied for first with South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the conference. The team has a few days off until Mississippi rolls into Gainesville for another three-game weekend series.

Until then, the Gators get to enjoy an Easter basket full of smashed Crimson Tide hearts.