by Peter Geppert
After taking 16-years off from their international-friendly series due to political posturing, the United States and Cuban national baseball teams returned to the field to renew a long-time rivalry. Former Mallards’ pitcher Jonathon Crawford (Florida) was right in the middle of the action, earning the start in the opening game of the Collegiate Team USA’s summer schedule.
Despite having to go through customs, a lengthy pre-game rain delay, and a stacked Cuban lineup full of future Major League talent, Crawford rose to the occasion. Through 6.1 innings the right-hander had six strikeouts and allowed two runs on four hits in Team USA’s 4-3 win.
Mallards might remember hearing Crawford’s name earlier this summer when he threw only the seventh no-hitter in NCAA baseball tournament history on June 1st against Bethune-Cookman. The game, which the Gators won 4-0, put him in the national headlines for the first time in his career.
Before his rise to fame, things weren’t so easy for Crawford, as he struggled early on to find his identity with the Mallards when he was pitching with the team in 2011. The right-hander finished his lone season on the club with a modest 2-2 record and a 5.21 ERA.
“He had great stuff, probably the best in the league.” Labbe said. “He could come at pitchers with four quality Major League level pitchers that most hitters he faced had no chance at.”
Despite quality pitches, it was his mechanics and mental approach to the game that kept him from becoming elite.
“When we had him we worked with him to emphasize that he didn’t have to make the perfect pitch every time to get outs,” Labbe said. “He didn’t realize that he was good enough to pitch to contact and still make hitters miss.”
Taking that advice to heart in addition to working with Florida head coach and pitching guru Kevin O’Sullivan on his delivery saw Crawford take his game to the next level when he returned to Gainesville in the fall. In his sophomore season at Florida he became a fixture in the Gator’s rotation, going 6-2 with a 3.13 ERA.
“Going from an overhand release to a three-quarter delivery was huge for him,” Labbe added. “It took a lot of hard work on his end, but he really took to it and it paid dividends for him.”
With the strong start against Cuba and an even stronger year in Florida’s rotation, many scouts are now viewing Crawford as an elite prospect.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that people are beginning to notice his talent,” Labbe added. “He is a really hard working kid, who is also a great athlete.”