Florida's young staff tough to beat

Florida baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan learned a couple of things about his team during the weekend's three-game series against defending national champion South Carolina.

O'Sullivan learned the Gators will have to get more from the middle of their lineup to beat teams as talented as the Gamecocks. In Florida's two losses against the Gamecocks, its Nos. 3-5 hitters went a combined 2-for-19 at the plate.

South Carolina snapped Florida's 10-game winning streak with a 9-2 victory on Friday night and then won by a 4-3 score on Sunday. The Gators, who came into the series ranked No. 1 in the country, won Saturday's game 2-1.

"We've got to get more production out of those guys," O'Sullivan said Monday. "We've got to get more production out of the middle of the lineup."

At least O'Sullivan doesn't have to worry about his pitching staff showing up.

Despite the weekend's results, No. 3 Florida's starting rotation and deep bullpen are big reasons why it is a major threat to return to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the second season in a row.

The Gators' starting pitchers have a combined 15-2 record and 2.13 ERA; the bullpen is 6-2 with six saves and a 2.65 ERA. Florida's team ERA of 2.35 ranks second in the SEC, behind only Vanderbilt (2.30).

"Even if we the starters come out in the fifth or sixth inning, our bullpen picks us up," sophomore Hudson Randall said. "We've got a lot of guys in the pen throwing 90 to 95 [mph]. It takes a lot of pressure off the starters."

And Florida's starters have taken a lot of pressure of its relievers, too.

Randall, a right-handed starter from Dunwoody, Ga., is 4-0 with a 0.66 ERA in six starts. He has 25 strikeouts with one walk in 40 2/3 innings. After being named a freshman All-American last season, Randall has added an effective curveball to his repertoire this year.

Randall, a 46th-round choice by the Kansas City Royals in the 2009 amateur draft, now throws five pitches effectively: a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup, slider and curveball. His fastball tops out at about 92 mph.

"I thought my curveball was a little weak last year," Randall said. "I didn't throw it nearly as much as I wanted to last year. It's more effective against left-handers than a slider."

Sophomore Brian Johnson, who has been the Gators' regular Friday night starter, is 4-1 with a 2.86 ERA. He has 31 strikeouts and six walks in 34 2/3 innings. Johnson, a native of Cocoa Beach, Fla., was also named a freshman All-American last season. He had been nearly untouchable this season until he was roughed up in Friday night's 9-2 loss to the Gamecocks.

"He's a big, physical lefty and looks the part and acts the part," O'Sullivan said.

If anyone looks the part on Florida's pitching staff, it is freshman Karsten Whitson. He is 3-0 with a 2.40 ERA in six starts, with 31 strikeouts and 11 walks in 30 innings.

Whitson, a right-handed starter from Chipley, Fla., was the ninth pick in last year's amateur draft by the San Diego Padres. Whitson surprised nearly everyone when he failed to come to contract terms with the Padres and enrolled at Florida.

After Whitson failed to sign, Padres owner Jeff Moorad told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the team had reached a verbal agreement with Whitson for $1.953 million shortly after he was drafted. Moorad said the team increased its signing bonus offer to $2.1 million, but claimed Whitson's agent wanted $2.7 million.

Whitson won't be eligible for the amateur draft again until 2013.

Whitson, 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, throws a fastball that tops out at 96 mph, along with a slider, changeup and curveball.

"He's got powerful stuff," O'Sullivan said. "He's got a powerful slider. He's got a big-time arm and big-time stuff. He's getting better every time out. The next thing for him is to pitch deeper into the ballgame."

As the coach did with Johnson and Randall last season, O'Sullivan plugged Whitson right into his weekend rotation.

"For every young pitcher, you definitely want to tell yourself you have a chance," Whitson said. "But I knew I had to put in the work like everyone else. It's still early in the year, but I feel like I can get a lot better. There are a lot of areas in my game I can work on."

So can the Gators, who face rival Florida State for the third time this season on Tuesday night in Jacksonville, Fla. The Gators and No. 7 Seminoles split their first two meetings.

Once the middle of Florida's lineup -- right fielder Preston Tucker, designated hitter Austin Maddox and Johnson (who also plays first base) -- starts hitting again, it will be even more difficult to beat.

"They went through it as freshmen and they're all going through it as sophomores," O'Sullivan said. "People are adjusting to them and they're going to have to adjust. They all went through it last year and bounced out of it. They can lean on each other for support."

At least the Gators know their pitchers will be there to lead the way.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.