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Challenge accepted: Messick fired up but in control on the mound

Competitors rise to the moment, accepting the challenge in front of them. Parker Messick has done it nearly every Friday night and not just racking up strikeouts and wins.

The challenges are often internal. Or ones created by pitching coach Jimmy Belanger.

“I gave him a hard time with the walks,” Belanger told the Osceola on Thursday. “In 2016, I had two pitchers on my staff, two starters, who had more starts than walks. That’s always been the thing we joke around about, having more starts than walks.”

It’s a joke in part because Messick had 23 walks in 16 starts in 2021, admittedly not that many for a redshirt freshman but enough for Belanger to set a goal. And Messick had given up 12 walks in the first eight starts this spring until he has found a new level of not backing down to hitters, recording 38 strikeouts and no walks in his last four starts.

Or another challenge: Bring your own energy and pitch well on the road. 

“I’ve challenged him to pitch better on the road,” Belanger said. “If you look prior to this weekend, his road numbers were actually not that great. And he’s responded to that. His last two road starts have been really good.”

Yes, Messick answered that one with seven innings at Clemson (two earned runs, eight strikeouts, no walks in a no decision) and eight innings at Boston College (two earned runs, 12 strikeouts, no walks).

Or the challenge to pick up and refine a fourth pitch, a slider, in the offseason.

“Just another look he gives guys,” Belanger said. “I’d say he’s probably used it 5 percent of the time. He hasn’t used it a ton. But when he’s needed to he’s had it. If he’s having a hard time putting a guy away, he’s just got that extra pitch he can go to on a guy. And it just puts that in the back of their head. The curveball he’ll go to more than the slider but the slider, if he needs it, it’s always there.”

Messick’s drive to improve has helped him build a resume as the ACC’s best pitcher and one of the best left-handers in the nation. It can also be argued he is putting up one of the best seasons by an FSU left-hander in program history.

Messick has 128 strikeouts this season, which puts him in the top 20 in a single season for an FSU pitcher. The redshirt sophomore has allowed just 12 walks (yes, in 12 starts). While he has a 2.56 ERA, Messick has allowed just four earned runs in his last four starts (28.2 innings) going into Friday’s FSU-Miami showdown. It will be the first time Messick has faced the Hurricanes at Dick Howser Stadium, and he isn’t trying to hide his enthusiasm.

“Obviously, I pitch with emotion,” Messick said. “I did it at BC when there was almost no one in the stands. I’m just going to keep doing that. I expect a big crowd here at Howser this weekend. I’m just going to keep doing me.”

If Messick keeps doing what he’s been doing, he will establish the best strikeout season by an FSU left-hander. FSU’s single-season strikeout leaders are names like Mike Loynd (223 in 1986) and Richie Lewis (202 in 1986 and 196 in 1987). Those are likely well out of reach absent a long run in Omaha. But Messick is well within striking distance of the top two left-handers on the list — Tyler Holton had 144 in 2017 and Tim Davis had 142 in 1992.

At 128 strikeouts, it’s plausible Messick could surpass all of them before the ACC Tournament starts (FSU plays at UNC next week to wrap up the regular season).

“There’s always something about somebody that you can expose, for the most part,” FSU coach Mike Martin Jr. said. “But there isn’t anything in his arsenal, in his makeup.”

Back to the in-game challenges. Messick likes to pitch quickly — as soon as he gets the ball back from catcher Colton Vincent, he’s quick to step on the pitching rubber and get the sign for the next pitch. FSU teammates appreciate how Messick attacks each hitter, whether he’s got his best stuff and has a no-hitter deep into a game or is simply battling (and often still dismissing) hitter after hitter.

“He’s so fun to play behind,” first baseman Alex Toral said. “Just the way he competes out there. It doesn’t have anything to do with his pitches. Some days he goes out there and doesn’t have his pitches. You look up, it’s like, ‘Dang, Parker went seven innings today and he was not having his best stuff.’ Just the way he competes. I think that he knows he’s a leader on this team and he’s going to go out there and be a bulldog for this team no matter how he feels.”

With every fist pump, often with strikeouts to end the inning, Messick seemingly builds confidence as he gets deeper into games. And it does not seem to matter if an opposing team stack the lineup with right-handed hitters as Messick’s change-up is often his best weapon and keeps them off-balance. Belanger said TCU had some weaker hits from left-handed bats, but he noted that statistically Messick is getting right-handed bats out at a higher rate.

Part of the reason for Messick’s success are the benchmarks he and Belanger have established. And they are often on the same page when it comes to attacking hitters on Friday nights. Belanger calls pitches in from the dugout remotely to an earpiece in Vincent’s ear, and he flashes the signs to Messick. In three years, Messick has only “swiped” a Belanger pitch one time.

They are ever mindful of analytics and scouting as opponents will try to find tendencies. But Belanger and Messick have embraced the concept of turning traditional fastball counts into ones where they are very comfortable throwing a curve, change or slider.

“The way pitching is, it’s getting more that way,” Belanger said. “There really isn’t any more of, ‘In fastball counts you’re getting fastballs.’ There’s so much data now. He will throw a change-up or a curveball in a 2-1 or a 1-0. He can do that. And that makes him effective. But we also have to be careful that we don’t do it at an extremely high rate.”

The challenges also ramp up. FSU is 17th in the RPI and looking for a series win against Miami, which is No. 6 in the RPI. The Seminoles have had a wildly inconsistent year but have consistently been competitive on nights when Messick is on the mound. And if ever there was a time for a lights-out night from Messick to get FSU off to the right start to a series, it is now, against Miami, with plenty of postseason implications on the line as the Seminoles seek a chance to host a regional. 

That may appear to be a longshot now, but the Seminoles feel they can make a late push. And when Messick is asked if he has thought about Friday night, if it could be his final mound appearance at Howser Stadium, he readily admits to it. But he also embraces the challenge.

“That’s all I’ve been thinking about,” Messick said. “But hopefully we pull it together and we finish strong and we’re able to get some playoff baseball here at Howser. That’s the plan. We expect nothing less of ourselves to be able to do that. If it is the last start I ever have at Howser I’m going to make the most of it.”