Struggling Gators return home

Florida picked the right time to play its worst baseball of the season.

The top-ranked Gators (24-5, 6-3) finished an eight-game road trip 4-4. They concluded the trip by dropping a midweek game to North Florida in which Florida committed three errors and were outhit by the Ospreys 13 to 10.

Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said extended dreary road trips affect all teams.

“Every year a team goes through something like this,” O’Sullivan said. “It doesn’t matter how talented you are or how much experience you have, this game is a humbling game and you’re not going to go 50-6 thru the regular season. You are going to have some stretches where you are not going to play your best. The key to this whole thing is not to have this stretch at the end of the year as you are going into tournament play.”

It doesn’t get any easier at home this weekend for Florida, but at least the Gators will play in Gainesville for the first time in two weeks.

The No. 7 LSU Tigers (23-6, 6-3) arrive at McKethan Stadium hot after sweeping No. 3 Arkansas over the weekend and defeating Louisiana College Tuesday to extend their win streak to six games.

Game 1 starts 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Game 2 will be at 7 p.m. while the series finale begins at 4 p.m.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri told LSUsports.Net that the Tigers are entering the weekend series with added confidence.

LSU, after missing out on a regional last season, feature the top hitter in the Southeastern Conference and three of the top 20 pitchers as well.

Tigers pitchers have combined for seven shutouts while the Florida pitching staff has just one.

Pitch count will be an issue at the plate for Florida when trying to rattle LSU pitchers, Gators catcher Mike Zunino said.

“A lot of power arms,” Zunino said. “A lot of great arms in the pen and the starting rotation. It’s going to be one of those weekends where we need to battle at the plate, see a lot of pitches, try and drive some pitch counts up and go from there.”

The story this weekend surrounds the return of pitcher Karsten Whitson who will be on a pitch count of his own for his start in game 2 Friday night, O’Sullivan said.

“I don’t know if there is a definite number, but he won’t go seven innings. I know that,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ll work together on it, see how he feels and be smart about it. At the same token I think it’s time to push forward.”

In his first rehab start since his early-season arm and groin injuries, Whitson threw a perfect first inning vs. North Florida on Tuesday.

Before Tuesday, Whitson hadn’t thrown a pitch in more than a month. Whitson stayed sharp in his time off even though he didn’t see the field, Zunino said.

“What he couldn’t do physically, he was definitely going through his scenarios mentally,” Zunino said. “He was getting himself mentally ready to pitch. I talked to him the whole time just wanted to reassure him that there’s no rush. It’s a long season. I didn’t want him to rush back too early, because we do need him.”

Florida’s rotation of Brian Johnson, Whitson and Hudson Randall will need to come with their best stuff vs. the Tigers.

The LSU trio of Kurt McCune, Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades are a combined 10-4 with a 2.98 ERA.

Randall switched spots with Johnson, because O’Sullivan didn’t want to push Randall’s start up a day after throwing 81 pitches in a 3-0 loss to Ole Miss.

Johnson threw 30 fewer pitches in his four innings vs. the Rebels in Oxford.

Seeing Johnson on the hill at home Thursday night will be a welcomed sight for Florida after a tiring road trip, which saw the Gators playing in front of 10,000-plus people in three different locations.

Florida is familiar with midseason woes, especially senior Preston Tucker.

“We did it last year.  We’ve done it every year since I’ve been here,” Tucker said. “If you’re not swinging the bat well, if you’re not making pitches, it doesn’t matter how talented your players are. You’re not going to win ballgames and it’s definitely showing right now.”

Adversity can’t hurt the top-ranked Gators who at one point had a school record 18 wins in a row.

Florida may have picked the right time for its worst baseball, but the midseason struggles will make them stronger, O’Sullivan said.

“This will make our team better,” O’Sullivan said. “It is frustrating and sometimes you don’t want to see this, but it does build character and puts yourself in a better situation at the end of the year.”

The Gators first opportunity to regain their nearly invincible early season form comes Thursday night vs. a loaded LSU team.

Pitching Probables

Game 1 at 7:30 p.m.: UF LHP Brian Johnson (4-0, 3.29) vs. LSU RHP Kurt McCune (1-3, 4.76)

Game 2 at 7 p.m.: UF RHP Karsten Whitson (1-0, 4.05) vs. LSU RHP Kevin Gausman (5-0, 2.27)

Game 3 at 4 p.m.: UF RHP Hudson Randall (3-1, 3.56) vs. LSU RHP Ryan Eades (4-1, 1.91)

Player to Watch

LSU junior infielder Raph Rhymes

– Rhymes keeps rolling for the streaking Tigers. The junior earned SEC Player of the Week honors after batting .588 (10-for-17) vs. Arkansas and Louisiana College. Rhymes sports a nine-game hitting streak and holds the highest average in the SEC at .491 along with an absurd .533 on-base percentage.

* Thursday and Friday are the only TV games. Game 1 can be seen on ESPNU while Fox Sports Florida will televise Game 2.