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Column: An epic postseason meltdown for FSU

AUBURN, Ala. — One of the Animals’ infamous cheers is “The circus is over there.” It’s often aimed at Florida State’s opponents who have wilted under pressure at Dick Howser Stadium in a litany of blunders.

On Saturday night, the traveling circus was the Seminoles’ epic meltdown in the Auburn Regional: Four errors, a season-high 16 walks and a season-high 21 runs allowed. The season highs were lowlights and all of FSU’s weaknesses appeared at the worst possible time.

FSU battled as a No. 3 seed and toughed-out a 5-3 win over UCLA on Friday. But the Seminoles were lethargic in every department and looked dreadful in a 21-7 loss to Auburn in the regional and putting the Seminoles’ season on the brink of elimination.

“Beat us in every facet,” FSU coach Mike Martin Jr. said. “We got to regroup. Our focus is on UCLA. We got to flush it. Get ready for tomorrow.”

Yes, FSU (34-24) had ugly games during the season. There was a five-error nightmare at Clemson on April 24 that allowed a (potential) series win from slipping away. There were 10 walks served up at North Carolina on May 21 to put a whimper on a series sweep. There were a handful of shutouts. There were midweek messes. But there wasn’t one comprehensive, non-competitive game quite like this one with the spotlight of the nation on what felt like it could be an entertaining ACC-SEC matchup before a packed house at Plainsman Park. 

Instead, we saw a lopsided mismatch. It’s pitching that brings the Animals, FSU’s die-hard fans, and other Noles to the park. And candidly pitching is the best asset of a flawed team. When the starters, long relievers and closers are on, the Seminoles function like a competitive team. When they aren’t, and down the stretch this season they often have not, the wheels have come off.

Bryce Hubbart struggled from the start, seemingly unable to find control, grip and at times footing on the mound. After recording just seven outs, Hubbart was out of the game.

The fourth inning was a half-hour horror show in which Auburn batted around and scored seven runs on five hits but with the benefit of four walks and two errors. When it was over, Auburn had a touchdown and a field goal — and FSU was lining up bullpen arms in a desperate attempt to eat up innings but protect a few options for an elimination game on Sunday.

FSU’s pitching wasn’t sharp — the 16 walks are the most since giving up 14 against Wake Forest in 2019. Auburn’s 10 extra-base hits came in waves. But FSU’s defense offered no help. 

In the third inning, Brett Roberts went back and dropped a fly ball in shallow right field. He later mishandled a liner up the middle in what was scored a single but easily could have been an error. And in the fourth inning, Carrion couldn’t field a tough hop with the bases loaded and Ferrer allowed a lazy single to right to get past him. Alex Toral later couldn’t field a well-hit grounder that came his way.

Pitching and defense win ballgames. No pitching and no defense in the postseason? It’s a three-ring circus.

“We ran the gamut,” Martin Jr. said of the variety of mistakes. “We flat-out stunk.”

There were base-running blunders, too. Toral was picked off second when Colton Vincent, who was attempting to bunt, never saw a strike and took a four-pitch walk. But Toral was too far off second and was thrown out 2-6-3 and an early opportunity was lost.

Yes, there was some good. Treyton Rank had a majestic, pinch-hit, three-run homer that cleared the left-center field videoboard. Sebastian Jimenez later crushed a home run in nearly the same spot. Kyle McMullen ate up three innings, allowing an earned run albeit giving up five walks. And there was a bang-bang play at the plate where Vincent blocked the runner, who never touched home and was then tagged out.

The FSU fans, including the Animals who made the trip from Tallahassee, as well as those from Atlanta and points around the Southeast, deserved better. Admirably, they kept standing and cheering. With a few exceptions, notably a pair of three-run outbursts in the seventh and eighth, they mostly got lollygagging and a forgettable night. If you take anything from those two innings, it’s that the Seminoles didn’t simply give up while they were well behind. But it underscores that they showed little focus or fight for the first six innings.

“What’s worse? Getting smoked like this or losing a heartbreaker?” Martin Jr. asked, prompted by an Auburn beat writer’s question about whether the score of a defeat is significant in the big picture of refocusing for a Sunday game. “You got to flush it. That’s baseball. You got to go. We’ve been up and down the whole year. They’re resilient and I expect them to be resilient tomorrow.”

Martin Jr. assembled this roster and shoulders plenty of the responsibility for how it hits (or doesn’t), fields (or doesn’t) and runs (or has senior moments). There weren’t many buttons to push on Saturday as the blunders piled up. All he could do was try to save Jonah Scolaro, Carson Montgomery and Jackson Baumeister for a game against UCLA on Sunday at 2 p.m. (Scolaro will be an “opener” on Sunday.) It will be a last-gasp shot to extend the season and attempt to match up again with what will be a rested Auburn team on Sunday night. 

The Seminoles simply don’t have many more dependable arms after using seven on Saturday and four on Friday. It could be a short Sunday or a lengthy doubleheader. But the season is on the precipice — one in which there is a need to do more than rebuild but rather overhaul shortcomings just about everywhere. And with a healthy amount of self-reflection at every position from the top down.

Box score: Auburn 21, FSU 7

The FSU – Auburn box score can be viewed here.