TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There’s plenty of praise to go around after Florida State’s 7-2 victory over Southern Mississippi in the winner’s bracket of the NCAA Tallahassee Regional. But it’s best to start, as coach Mike Martin did, with the man who sat to his right during the postgame press conference.
That would be starting pitcher Tyler Holton, who after an uneven start settled down and delivered a masterful performance over 5 2/3 innings that put the Seminoles on the doorstep of the NCAA Super Regionals.
“Haven’t done anything other than put ourselves in a good position,” Martin said.
True, but it’s the best position the Seminoles could possibly ask for.
And, in a tournament format that heavily favors the winner’s bracket, it’s a far better position than that of either Southern Miss or South Alabama, who will play an elimination game today at noon.
The winner of that game will then face FSU at 6 p.m. and would need to beat the Seminoles twice – first today and again on Monday – in order to advance to the Super Regional.
So, yes, the Seminoles have done well to avoid that fate. And they’ve largely got Holton to thank for it.
A freshman out of Tallahassee’s Lincoln High School, Holton stumbled out of the gate by allowing two hits, two walks and two runs in the top of the first inning.
When Martin went out for an early mound visit, he saw the look of a player making his first appearance on the postseason stage. Not the player who helped FSU to two wins over No. 3 Miami in each of his last two starts.
“You just have to understand, as a coach, what he’s experiencing,” Martin said. “It’s the first time he has been in this situation.
“And he was not himself. … But once he got the first out, once he got everything under control, then he became Tyler Holton.”
Which spelled bad news for the Golden Eagles.
Because after he struck out catcher Chuckie Robinson for the final out of the first inning, Holton settled down and ruthlessly ripped through the USM lineup.
It started with No. 8 hitter Steven Wells, a sophomore right fielder who came into the game with 69 at-bats and a .188 batting average.
Maybe not an obvious candidate for a game-changing, three-run home run, but that’s what Wells delivered with a sky-high drive off of the scoreboard in left-center field during the bottom of the third inning.
More specifically, off of Wells’ picture on the scoreboard in left-center field.
“I put my head down,” Wells said with a shy smile. “They told me it hit off my face.”
Wells’ first homer in more than a year gave the Seminoles a 3-2 lead, and they extended it further when their No. 9 hitter, second baseman Matt Henderson, worked a bases-loaded walk.
Henderson then tacked on another run with a two-out RBI single that provided FSU some breathing room at 5-2.
“Everybody wants the bottom of the order to hit like that,” USM coach Scott Berry said.
As happy as he was to see his bats come alive – and they did once more when Jackson Lueck launched a two-run homer to the opposite field in the sixth – Martin might have been even more pleased with the way FSU defended.
The Seminoles put up a zero in the error column, saw a number of impressive snags from their infielders and turned three double-plays.
“Those are plays that teams have to make to advance in the postseason,’ Martin said. “You can’t give a club that feeling of ‘Oh yeah, here we go.’ They’ve got to go ‘Gosh dog, what have we got to do?’”
What either Southern Miss or South Alabama has got to do is find a way to dispatch the other and then beat a Seminoles team that is is suddenly surging, with wins in six of its last seven contests.
Then they’ve got to beat them again.
Even Martin would admit that’s a tall order, although he’s hardly looking any further ahead than FSU’s next game tonight. Whoever the opponent may be.
“Either one of those clubs are capable of coming out tomorrow and winning two ballgames,” he said. “And they’re capable of coming out on Monday and winning another ballgame. Our job is to understand that and be ready to go tomorrow.”