GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It was a headline that took on a life of its own back in the summer of 2010, the summer that wasn’t for the San Diego Padres. And, just as importantly perhaps, what became the summer of love for the University of Florida Gators.
Big, strong right-hander Karsten Whitson, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound graduate of Chipley (Fla.) High School in the spring of 2010, was on every Major League team’s radar when the MLB First-Year Player Draft was conducted in June of that year. He lasted through the first eight selections before the Padres snagged him with the ninth overall pick and set out to sign a player Perfect Game ranked as the eighth overall top national prospect in his high school graduating class.
But Whitson wasn’t enticed by big-time first round MLB bucks. He had committed to the Florida Gators and head coach Kevin O’Sullivan nearly a year ahead of the draft, and he honored that commitment.
Now about three weeks into his sophomore season here in Gainesville, Whitson maintains he has never wavered in his belief that the University of Florida is where he belongs.
“Definitely; I couldn’t answer that much more firmly,” Whitson said before a March 15 practice session as the Gators prepared to meet Vanderbilt in a Southeastern Conference-opening three-game series. “It’s been great and Coach O’Sullivan has taken me so far and has really helped me come along as a pitcher.
“Just being around these guys in the locker room every day, it’s kind of a cliché, but every day you’re making memories because once this is over it’s over, and it’s on to the next thing.”
The “next thing” will have to wait – just as it did in 2010 – while Whitson and his Florida Gator teammates go about putting together their next scrapbook full of memories.
Whitson, now listed at 6-foot-4, 225-pounds, made his presence known within the UF baseball community with little hesitation last spring. He started 19 games for the College World Series national runner-up Gators and finished 8-1 with a 2.40 ERA and 92 strikeouts (against 28 walks) in 97 1/3 innings.
Perfect Game named him as the National Freshman Pitcher of the Year and also selected him to the PG Freshman All-America Team. He was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman Team, and in 10 SEC starts picked up wins against Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss and Kentucky. In short order, Whitson had found a welcoming home in Gainesville.
Big things are expected of the Gators this season. They are PG’s top-ranked team with a 16-1 record heading into the Vanderbilt series and have been dominant to date. They won 2-of-3 against No. 9 Cal State Fullerton, swept three games with No. 15 Miami and won a single game against arch-rival and No. 6 Florida State on March 13.
“It’s top of the line baseball in all aspects,” Whitson said of the pre-conference slate. “Playing in the Southeastern Conference, it’s arguably one of the best baseball conferences in the country, and then our out of conference schedule with the likes of Miami, Florida State, UCF (Central Florida), FAU (Florida Atlantic) – those teams are usually regional teams and now they’re starting to get a little bit better and better.”
And Whitson didn’t even mention the Gators’ season-opening series against CS Fullerton.
Whitson’s 2012 campaign has been inauspicious to date in somewhat limited action, although he maintains he’s feeling good and ready for the rest of the season. After two starts heading into the SEC portion of the schedule, he was 1-0 with a 4.76 ERA and two strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings of work.
“Our team is playing really well right now,” Whitson said. “We’re hitting the ball really well, we’re playing good defense and we’re pitching really well, so when you can do all those things at once you’ll tend to win a lot of ballgames.”
He also maintains that the lofty preseason ranking and high national expectations are something he and his teammates embrace.
“We all understand that that kind of comes with the territory,” Whitson said. “Our older guys do a real good job of keeping the locker room loose, because last year being a freshman it was kind of an eye-opening experience just playing in the SEC and having the big spotlight on you. With the older guys who have been here, they know how to handle it and they definitely show the young guys how to go about their business.”
It was certainly a very real possibility that Whitson would be in the Padres’ spring training camp right now instead of toiling for UF. As it is, he is feeling very comfortable gaining his footing in his second season as a Florida starter.
“It was a lot easier (this spring) because you know what to look for and you know what to expect,” he said. “Just that one year of experience does a lot for you as far as your routine, getting ready for games and learning how it’s going to be on the road. It’s definitely a great help and it’s also good because I can help some of the younger kids, too.”
Whitson participated in 16 Perfect Game events during his high school years, including appearances at the 2009 PG National Showcase and the 2009 Aflac All-American Classic. After his showing at the National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, a PG scout recorded the following:
“(Whitson has a) smooth delivery (and) maintains balance/direction well. Extremely quick (and) smooth, with an easy arm. … Sky is the limit talent.”
He played in WWBA and BCS Finals tournaments with the elite East Cobb Braves 17u squad and also with Team Mizuno. Those tournament and showcase experiences were second-to-none, in his view.
“You’re traveling to the big showcases, the big tournaments and a lot of times you’re put on a team where you have to meet new guys or you’re on a travel ball team where you’ve seen kids in the past from different showcases,” Whitson said. “It’s cool because you build a relationship with some kids that may not be from your state and you try to keep up with them in college and stuff.
“It definitely helps you because you’ll pitch in some big games with a lot of people and especially with a lot of scouts (watching),” he continued. “You learn how to pitch with a little bit of pressure on you so that when you get to this stage it doesn’t really surprise you when you see a few radar guns in the stands.”
The job at hand right now for Whitson – a PG Second Team Preseason All-American – and his UF teammates is a return trip to the CWS with the goal of bringing home the school’s first national championship. The Gators have made five straight postseason and two straight CWS appearances under O’Sullivan’s watch and Whitson sees no reason why that can’t continue.
“I think we just work hard, really like everybody else,” he said. “Sully does a really good job of getting us ready for any game that we play. Every game is a big game because it’s another opportunity to go out there and show our ability and kind of showcase what our team is all about.
“(O’Sullivan) does a real good job of getting us prepared and he also does a good job of bringing in the top recruits, so that helps when you have really good talent. That’s really the thing we’re capitalizing on right now.”