It took 37 days, but Karsten Whitson finally appears to be done watching.
The sophomore right-handed pitcher took the mound Tuesday night in Jacksonville for a one-inning rehab start, ending more than one month of inactivity.
Now he is back to being an option for No. 1 Florida (24-5, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) as it welcomes No. 12 LSU (23-6, 6-3 SEC) into McKethan Stadium for a three-game series beginning tonight at 7:30. Whitson’s name is being tossed around as a possible starter for Friday’s game.
“That’s what me and (coach Kevin O’Sullivan) have kind of talked about,” Whitson said. “I’m definitely looking forward to getting back out there.”
Despite missing the majority of fall practice with a groin injury, Whitson entered the spring with giant expectations. As a freshman, he struck out 92 batters in 97.1 innings, registering a 2.40 ERA and an 8-1 record. He was expected to slide up a spot in the rotation and serve as Florida’s Saturday starter.
His right arm wasn’t quite ready for the promotion.
After “four or five” weeks of resting his groin injury, Whitson said his arm wasn’t in the shape. He got his first victory in a five-inning outing against Cal State Fullerton on Feb. 18 but didn’t look quite himself. His next start on Feb. 26 lasted 13 pitches, and Whitson was shelved for more than a month.
“It’s hard when you take off the four or five weeks you’re supposed to take and you can’t just come back and assume you’re going to be 100 percent,” he said. ”It’s definitely a process and it’s been tough.”
On Wednesday, O’Sullivan said Whitson had strained muscle in his forearm. For weeks, it had been described as simple fatigue. The injury was one that took nothing more than time to heal. Whitson praised how protective O’Sullivan was of him, a quality the fifth-year Florida coach has become famous for.
“It just shows why guys make the decision to come to Florida,” Whitson said. “It’s definitely comfortable knowing the coach has your best interests in heart rather than just trying to get you back out there and win a couple games.”
O’Sullivan said if it was up to Whitson, he would have been back on the mound 10 days ago, but the Gators have bigger plans in mind than a late-March road trip.
“Obviously we were probably more cautious than maybe some other people would have been, but I felt like it was the right thing to do,” O’Sullivan said.
Nearly half a regular season and then postseason to remains, and Whitson is an integral part of that stretch.
“I talked to him the whole time,” junior catcher Mike Zunino said. “I just wanted to reassure that there’s no rush. It’s a long season, and I didn’t want him to try to rush back too early because we do need him.”
If Tuesday was any indication, Whitson is ready. His fastball velocity was back and his slider was buzzing as he retired three batters in eight pitches. His two strikeouts were as many as he had in his first start.
“I just had to make sure I was really comfortable,” Whitson said. “Definitely not 90 percent, I need to be 100 percent because that’s fair to my teammates and fair to myself.”
Karsten Whitson pitches during UF’s 5-0 win against USF on Feb. 20, 2011.