When the Sarasota High baseball team began its postseason run on May 1 in the district semifinals against Palmetto High, coach Clyde Metcalf turned to a fresh face to take the mound.
Freshman pitcher Conner Whittaker had been called up from junior varsity, where he began the year despite being chosen to pitch in the varsity spring scrimmage, after spring break. Whittaker only made four starts on JV, playing shortstop the rest of the time, but Metcalf knew he had something special in his young right-hander and saved him for when the time was right. That time came against Palmetto.
The move worked. Whittaker threw five shutout innings against the Tigers in a 5-1 win. He didn’t pitch in the Sailors’ district title game two days later, a 5-1 loss to Lakewood Ranch High, but he got another chance in the team’s regional quarterfinal matchup with East Lake High. Again, Whittaker owned the opportunity, throwing six shutout innings in a 9-0 win.
To complete his postseason trifecta, Whittaker again dazzled in the Sailors’ regional semifinal game, a rematch with Lakewood Ranch. He dueled against Mustangs senior pitcher Pablo Garabitos, a University of South Florida signee who had allowed one earned run all season. On paper, the matchup heavily favored Lakewood Ranch, but games aren’t played on paper. It was Garabitos who appeared rattled, allowing two first-inning earned runs and five total, and Whittaker who was the embodiment of calm. The freshman threw five innings and gave up a single earned run before Metcalf gave the ball to regular-season ace David Barrett to close out the game. The Sailors won 7-3, and headed into their May 23 regional final matchup against Plant High with high hopes, all thanks to Whittaker’s right arm.
Update: The Sailors defeated Plant High 2-0 in nine innings to advance to the state semifinals. Whittaker pitched a complete game, allowing just five hits and two walks. The Sailors will now play Strawberry Crest High at 10 a.m. on June 1 at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers.
“He’s kind of become the go-to guy for us,” Metcalf said. “He keeps the ball down. He keeps our defense engaged. He threw 55 pitches in five innings (against Lakewood Ranch). That keeps defenses on their toes. And he makes them hit to earn their way on base. He’s done a great job.”
Whittaker himself is surprised by how well he’s done, saying his starts at JV “weren’t great.” But he’s always been confident in himself. Whittaker has always played two years up from his age group, he said. The jump to varsity was nothing new for him, and it may have helped him feel comfortable. Whittaker throws his fastball 84-86 miles per hour, a development of the last two seasons, and his ability to “live in the zone” is a big plus. He’s walked six hitters over his three postseason starts, rare control for a young pitcher. He’s also not afraid to be vocal despite his inexperience.
“I want the ball at all times,” Whittaker said. “I want to be a captain. I’m a leader. I’m maybe not as vocal as I was on JV, but I’ll get up and tell everyone to ‘keep it talking.’ I make sure people know what we have to do.”
Whittaker’s own coaches aren’t the only ones taking notice.
“When you’re keeping us off-balance and mixing it up, especially when you’re throwing first-pitch fastballs for a strike, then you throw a first-pitch curveball for a strike, as a hitter it starts to mess with your mind,” Lakewood Ranch coach Ryan Kennedy said of Whittaker. “I’ll tell you what: I’m not looking forward to seeing him for the next three years. He’s a heck of a ballplayer.”
Whittaker said he’s yet to receive a collegiate offer, though he’s attended summer camps at Florida State and Florida Gulf Coast. His rapid development is the likely cause of the inattention. If Whittaker continues to perform well on big stages, his profile should rise.
The Sailors hope he does just that.
“What matters most is we’re one step closer to states,” Whittaker said. “This has been a lot of fun.”
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.