BATON ROUGE, La. – Baseball is a cruel sport, filled with failure to the core.
It’s also beautiful and unpredictable and, on any given night, you see things you haven’t before. Or see the culmination of two remarkable and improbable weeks.
At what point in the regular season did Florida State look like it was capable of making noise in the postseason? None.
At what point in May did the Seminoles look like they had a resume that solidified them comfortably as a team deserving of a spot in the field of 64? None.
Just two weeks ago, Mike Martin Sr. and the baseball team watched the selection show and celebrated. But really it was relief. A giant exhale. Because they were in the field, as the last four in. A clean slate.
In the 14 days since, we have seen plenty that’s tough to describe. Mike Salvatore’s hot bat. The legend of Tim Becker. The home runs in Athens. Down go the Bulldogs, two big-time right-handers getting lit up as Georgia surrendered on consecutive nights.
Now, a two-night series at Baton Rouge. Reese Albert’s home runs, Becker’s sacrifice fly, composure by the bullpen in front of nearly 12,000 fans in Game 1. And on Sunday, a trio of RBI singles to back up a poised, deep outing by C.J. Van Eyk and a remarkable long relief outing by Antonio Velez.
And then Drew Mendoza’s hit in the 12th, capping an improbable postseason run.
“I will always have that view in my mind of those guys leaping over the wall of the dugout and running to the plate,” Martin said. “I’ll never forget that. I’d like to think that we’re not through. We’re going to Omaha. Four of my favorite words. Or see you in Omaha. We just are proud of our young men.”
First it was Georgia. Now it was LSU. Two mighty SEC powers, knocked off by the Seminoles. Shockwaves sent around the college baseball world.
Martin said on Memorial Day that his team had a chance at Omaha. And while he literally was right, that there was a chance … nobody really gave FSU much of a chance.
Not after what fans and media had seen in the regular season, a team that flashed potential but was memorable for making mistakes and playing with inconsistency.
“Nobody wants to say we had our doubts but we might have had some doubts,” Mendoza said. “We always believed in each other. We knew we were a young team and I think it’s safe to say that none of these freshmen are freshmen anymore. … It’s a tribute to our coaching staff, getting all of these young guys ready for this atmosphere. It’s been building all season and I think we’re playing our best baseball right now.”
That is an understatement. But it’s also worth reminding that the Seminoles were woefully bad in late March and early April, going just 3-8 after a home loss to Florida on April 9. Martin was frustrated, about as close to mad in a postgame press conference as you will see, and had trouble containing his emotions.
Then FSU sweeps Clemson, wins a series at Virginia and tacks on series wins over Wake Forest and Pittsburgh. But there were those reminders of the growing pains – a Friday night 10-0 loss to Pittsburgh, being no-hit at Stetson and a pair of blowout losses at Louisville. There was a much-needed rout of NC State in the final game of the ACC Tournament pool play, but May was still not the fight to the finish that FSU players wanted.
Martin was candid on Sunday night. He recalled having doubts of his own. But he and the coaches made some moves – among them moving outfielder Elijah Cabell and Nico Baldor out of starting roles. Becker earned more playing time in the postseason, as did Carter Smith at first. Reese Albert also returned from injury. Conor Grady also became the No. 3 starter.
“We were looking at each other dead in the eye saying, ‘I hope everybody understands we’re in jail. And the only way we’re going to get out of it is come up with a set lineup and go from here,’ ” Martin said. “And all of a sudden, a couple of things happen and down the road we made a couple of changes in the outfield, established a new first baseman and good things started happening. But when you’re dealing with young men that are age 18-21 it all boils down to them accepting their roles.”
Now the Seminoles are one of the top eight teams in the nation in 2019, going to the CWS. Martin got to say “We’re going back” to the FSU players. And he got to say “See you in Omaha” to the FSU fans who gathered along the third-base dugout at Alex Box Stadium.
Who would have guessed that?