TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Here’s how hard it is for a team to advance after losing the first game of an NCAA baseball regional:
Since 1999, when college baseball adopted its current Regional/Super Regional format, teams who lose Game 1 of a regional have advanced just 22 times. Out of 288 opportunities. That’s 7 percent.
By forcing Game-1 losers to win four games in the span of three days, the tournament’s format naturally stacks the deck against teams who drop their first contest.
There’s no tried and true blueprint to make it happen – how could there be with a 7-percent success rate? – but one thing is certain. With so much baseball in such a short amount of time, strong starting pitching is a must.
And “strong” might not be strong enough to describe the efforts that the Florida State baseball team got from its pitchers this weekend.
After losing Game 1 to Tennessee Tech on Friday (incidentally, a game in which starter Drew Parrish had his best outing of the season), the Seminoles bounced back with four outstanding starts by four different starters on the way to four straight victories.
The last win, a 6-0 triumph over the Auburn Tigers Monday night on Mike Martin Field at Dick Howser Stadium, saw FSU through to the Super Regional, where it will host Sam Houston State this weekend with a trip to the College World Series on the line.
“When the lights come on, you’ve got to step up, and that’s what our guys did,” said sophomore catcher Cal Raleigh, who had a front-row seat to FSU’s pitching dominance throughout the weekend. “All those guys, going through adversity, it was awesome for what they did.”
Florida State’s five starters – freshman Drew Parrish, sophomore Tyler Holton, sophomore Cole Sands, redshirt sophomore Andrew Karp and redshirt junior Will Zirzow – combined to throw 36 1/3 innings.
They surrendered only seven runs and 23 hits while striking out 46 and walking just six.
The numbers get even more impressive when broken down individually.
Coach Mike Martin laughed and said he hoped Zirzow could give the Seminoles four innings and then turn it over to FSU’s well-preserved bullpen.
Pitching coach Mike Bell thought that if Zirzow made just one run through the Auburn lineup it would be enough to give the Seminoles a chance.
Instead, Zirzow, a former two-sport star (baseball and football) at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, turned in one of the most memorable performances in the program’s recent history.
“A complete game was a surprise,” said Zirzow, who hadn’t pitched more than five innings during his collegiate career. “It wasn’t until about the eighth or ninth until I realized what inning it was.”
By then, Florida State fans were happy to help him appreciate the moment, as chants of “Z-time” – a play on the traditional “K-time” strikeout chant – rained down while Zirzow polished off the Tigers in the bottom of the ninth.
Zirzow pitched four perfect innings to start the game, didn’t allow a hit until the sixth and, thanks to a pair of double-plays, faced just two more batters than the minimum.
“He threw an amazing game,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said.
“It really does resonate,” Martin said. “Because here’s a guy who has not pitched in 26 days and he goes out and throws a two-hit shutout for the regional championship.”
Speaking of that hiatus, a look at Zirzow’s game log doesn’t show any obvious reason for an extended absence. He entered the game with a 3.25 ERA in 15 appearances.
But as FSU’s season pushed further into May and June, the Seminoles played fewer midweek games, which made opportunities harder to come by for pitchers outside of the weekend rotation and core of established relievers.
Bell, however, said that never bothered Zirzow. Rather than take issue with his status, Zirzow instead continued to prepare as if his number could be called at any time.
That time came on Monday. And thanks to Zirzow’s masterful performance, the Seminoles’ time in the NCAA will extend another week. And maybe beyond.
“He handled it like a true teammate handles it,” Bell said. “Over 26 days, you never heard him say, ‘Hey Coach, I’m ready to go.’ … It’s a true testament to him and not only his athleticism and what type of pitcher he is, but what type of character he has.”