From Messick to long relief options, pitching is critical for FSU in regional

Florida State coaches intentionally scheduled as tough as they could, arranging the usual three games with Florida as well as a home series with TCU. The goal was to prepare the Seminoles for the postseason, even if the results against this year’s NCAA Tournament teams were mixed (just 13-13) and mirrored the challenges of the 2022 season overall.

Despite all of its struggles, and often it came at the hands of unranked teams, FSU played well against ranked teams beginning with a three-game series on April 14. The Seminoles swept Louisville, outlasted Georgia Southern, took a two-game sweep from TCU and won a series with Miami. FSU of course had the benefit of playing those nine games at home, a luxury it will not have this weekend when the Seminoles open with UCLA on Friday (noon on ESPN2) in a four-team regional that also includes host Auburn and SE Louisiana.

“Meat does a very good job of scheduling hard, out-of-conference schedules,” FSU ace left-hander Parker Messick said of coach Mike Martin Jr. “Even our midweeks are tougher mid-majors. He does a really good job of getting us prepared to play those different teams that we’re not so used to playing. With that being said, I feel like going in to play against Auburn and UCLA, we’re ready to go against teams like that as well.”

Pitching is always taxed in a four-team regional, especially for non-hosts that may have to fight back from elimination and play a fourth game. FSU will start Messick on Friday, followed by Bryce Hubbart on Saturday against Auburn or SE Louisiana. Messick and Hubbart have had moments of dominance this spring but also have struggled of late.

But if the Seminoles expect to have any chance to win the regional, pitching is in the spotlight — especially for an FSU team that has struggled at the plate. Beyond even Messick and Hubbart, who are capable of setting the tone for FSU and putting them in a good position, there is uncertainty over who could be a No. 3 starter. Among the options are Carson Montgomery or Jackson Baumeister, a starter who is now a reliever like Ross Dunn or a reliever working as an opener like Wyatt Crowell, Jonah Scolaro or Conner Whittaker.

Crowell has been invaluable for the Seminoles in the last few months of the season. In his last 14 outings, all in April and May, Crowell has allowed just five earned runs in 34 innings.

“It’s new to me but I’ve really enjoyed it this year,” Crowell said. “It’s gotten me a lot of innings. … At the beginning of the year, coming in those big situations, I was a little overwhelmed. Now I wouldn’t say I’m used to it, but I’ve been in those situations a lot more. It’s easier for me to calm myself down.”

Crowell said he told Martin Jr. he would take on whatever role the coaches needed. And the Seminoles have needed him often in long relief. He pitched 5.1 shutout inninsg in a win over NC State, five innings (with one earned run) in a no decision at Clemson, 4.2 shutout innings in a victory over TCU, four shutout innings of a win at BC and he did not allow an earned run in a four-inning save against Miami. While he took a loss in giving up a walk-off home run in the first game of the UNC series, Crowell has more than proven his effectiveness.

“I think my slider is a big part of what I’m doing now,” Crowell said. “It was a decent pitch but it’s not as good as it is now. I like throwing it a lot to lefties. Really what helped me take that jump is Belly (pitching coach Jimmy Belanger) just told me I need to throw it harder. I was kind of throwing it as a ‘get me over’ pitch, not throwing as hard as I could, it was like 79 to 81 in the fall. Then I started throwing it as hard as I could, it started moving more, obviously it’s a lot harder to hit if it’s coming in at 85-86 vs. 79-81.”

Not much is expected from FSU as a No. 3 seed, especially one the NCAA considered one of the last four to make the field. But if the Seminoles can win the first game with Messick on the mound, they may be in position to make a run in Auburn.

FSU has had mixed results in recent years, with Messick winning the regional opener against Southern Miss in 2021. But then Bryce Hubbart lost a pitching duel to Doug Nikhazy of Ole Miss in game 2, while the bullpen let a close game 3 slip away and the Seminoles were eliminated.

In 2019, the Seminoles scored 11 or more runs in all three of their wins at Athens, including back-to-back victories over Georgia. In that regional, Drew Parrish, C.J. Van Eyk and Conor Grady each gave FSU quality starts.

Messick has regional experience, including success on an SEC field a year ago. A long, efficient start would be just what the Seminoles need to start the Auburn Regional.

“The tradition of this school, it shows why people want to come here and why we win a lot of games, just to be able to carry on that tradition as the Friday night guy and be able to lead the team into the playoffs this year, I’m super honored to be able to do that,” Messick said. “And I’m really excited to see where we take it.”

UCLA’s projected starter

UCLA is expected to start sophomore right-hander Max Rajcic, who is 8-4 with a 3.08 ERA. Rajcic missed his start in the Pac-12 tournament due to an oblique injury. The Bruins have a staff ERA of 3.99, in the top 20 in Division I.

This will be the second matchup between the two schools. FSU and UCLA have played just once, when the Seminoles beat the Bruins 4-1 in an elimination game of the 2012 College World Series.

The Osceola also previewed the Bruins and the Auburn Regional teams here.