TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Drew Carlton is no stranger to starting on Fridays, having worked his way to the top of Florida State’s pitching rotation by the end of the 2016 season.
Still, he’ll be in for a new experience come this Friday.
Carlton, a junior who emerged as the ace of a staff loaded with young talent, will be the Seminoles’ Opening Day starter when they host Virginia Commonwealth on Friday at Dick Howser Stadium.
First pitch is set for 4 p.m.
“I’ve been dreaming about this moment since I was a little kid,” said Carlton, who finished 8-3 with a 3.94 ERA in 2016. “It’s been a pleasure coming here every year, starting on Saturday. But Friday is a big deal for me. It’s a real honor to have the first start of the year.”
As the 2017 campaign begins, FSU has several reasons for optimism.
The Seminoles boast experience at almost every position and a roster sprinkled with potential All-Americans.
They’ve got a talented crop of newcomers highlighted by former MLB draft prospect Drew Mendoza.
And they’ve got plenty of pop in a lineup that returns four of its top five home-run hitters from a year ago.
But it’s that pitching staff that makes coach Mike Martin shake his head and reflect on his 37 years of coaching. With Carlton, Tyler Holton and Cole Sands back in the fold, the Seminoles return each of their weekend starters from the end of last season.
And Martin isn’t sure that’s ever happened before.
“It’s a great feeling when you’ve got the experience,” Martin said. “The first three games that you play, you’re going to have three guys that were out there every weekend the previous year.”
That starts with Carlton, who punctuated his sophomore season with one of the finest efforts by a Florida State pitcher in recent memory.
In Game 1 of the Gainesville Super Regional, Carlton stymied the top-ranked Florida Gators with a complete-game, two-hit shutout.
Carlton didn’t walk a single batter. Only once did he reach so much as a three-ball count.
And Carlton thinks he can be even better this year.
“The strides have been enormous for me,” Carlton said. “Working on my cutter, my slider and my changeup have all developed really well for me.”
It’s that cutter that Carlton is especially proud of.
While tossing with his brother in the backyard, Carlton found that he could throw a pitch that left his hand like a fastball but that had late, breaking action away from right-handed hitters.
If the initial returns from FSU’s practices are any indication, the Seminoles’ opponents won’t like what they see.
“You see that fastball out of the hand, but it’s really the cutter,” FSU slugger Dylan Busby said. “And sometimes you get a little bit anxious and try to hit it a little too far, and it breaks at that last second and it’s off the end of the bat and you ground out to short or second.
“He’s twice as hard to hit now as he was.”
Following Carlton will be sophomores Cole Sands (6-7, 4.13) and Tyler Holton (3-4, 2.79), a pair of Tallahassee natives who steadily improved over the course of last season.
Holton, a lefty whose ERA was the best among Seminole pitchers with at least 10 starts, earned freshman All-America honors from Baseball America. And the hard-throwing Sands wasn’t too far behind, finishing with a strong performance against South Alabama in the NCAA regional and a respectable outing against a talented UF lineup the following week in Gainesville.
“Any of the three of us could be the Friday guy,” Carlton said. “The rotation we have is unbelievable.”
Speaking of Friday, its arrival means that Opening Day is finally here.
And, as far as the Seminoles are concerned, not a moment too soon.
“They’re smelling it,” Martin said. “Everybody is ready to play somebody with a different jersey. There’s no two ways about it.”