April 7, 2007
By Bill Hass – TheACC.com
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Strength up the middle.
That’s an old baseball saying about the core of any good team’s defense. And if you have any doubts, ask Mike Martin of Florida State.
“You’ve got to have that or you will get yourself beat,” said the Seminoles’ coach.
The four positions involved are catcher, second base, shortstop and center field. Martin has some concerns about center field, but feels good about second baseman Tony Thomas Jr., shortstop Mark Hallberg and catcher Buster Posey. Ironically, they bat 1-2-3 in the lineup.
The double play combination is the core of the core, so to speak. Thomas and Hallberg, who never played together before this season, have meshed exceptionally well.
“It took them about 20 games to get to where they were really in sync,” Martin said. “Now they change coverages, on their own, on every pitch. They’re constantly in communication.”
Thomas and Hallberg both believe their connection has a lot to do with the way they play together. The bond began to form in fall practice. Hallberg, a transfer from the University of Illinois-Chicago, was originally a candidate to play third base and be a backup at second.
But Martin liked the way he handled shortstop and quickly decided to play him there. That allowed Posey, last year’s shortstop, to move behind the plate where Martin said he is doing “a bang-up job.”
Hallberg was eager to return to shortstop, where he played his whole life.
“It’s the position everyone wants to play because your movements on the field are natural and you’re in the center of the diamond,” he said. “You need to keep your head in the game and keep everyone else focused.
“Tony and I bonded well. Our personalities are different – I’m more serious and he’s more laid-back – but we feed off each other.”
Thomas said the bond formed more quickly than he expected. The two quickly became friends and hang out together off the field. On the diamond, that rapport carries over.
“We trust each other,” Thomas said. “We know what the other is going to do when the ball is hit to him.”
So far, they pair has turned 21 double plays, not to mention countless force plays, those routine plays where a bad toss or throw can keep an inning alive for an opponent. That’s where the countless hours of working together in practice, learning where each other likes the ball on the feed, really pay off.
Martin said the Thomas-Hallberg duo reminds him of one he had in 1986 with second baseman Luis Alicea and shortstop Bien Figueroa.
“That’s the one everybody still talks about,” Martin said.
Alicea played for 13 years in the major leagues and Figueroa played briefly with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992.
Hallberg and Thomas have their own heroes, of course. Hallberg enjoys watching Derek Jeter of the Yankees and David Eckstein of the Cardinals. Thomas likes Jose Reyes of the Mets and the Phillies’ smooth combination of shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley.
While their defense is crucial, the hitting of Hallberg and Thomas is also a big help. Heading into a three-game series at N.C. State, Hallberg is batting .377 with 35 RBIs. At UIC last season, he was the hardest player in the country to strike out, fanning only six times in 217 at-bats. So far at FSU, he has struck out just eight times in 122 at-bats.
Thomas has been a remarkable story as a hitter. After posting averages of .240 as a freshman and .289 as a sophomore, with a total of 141 strikeouts, he has blossomed into one of the best hitters in the ACC. He’s hitting .496 with 17 doubles, four triples and seven homers. He has an eye-popping .842 slugging percentage and has stolen 16 bases in 18 attempts.
“I cannot believe what Tony is accomplishing,” Martin said. “He’s leading the conference in hitting in several categories to go along with being a very good second baseman. I think he can compete for national player of the year.”
Thomas made a small adjustment in his stance, opening it up, and has become more patient in pitch selection. While he expected improvement, he is a little surprised by the extent of his success.
“Mostly, it’s going out and having fun,” he said. “I stressed too much last year about striking out. Now those totals have dropped. I have more walks than strikeouts (22 to 21) and that’s something I really wanted to do.”
As a newcomer to the Seminoles, Hallberg quickly learned about the expectations of Florida State baseball.
“We can’t be happy where we are,” Thomas explained. “Florida State has a big tradition of post-season play but we haven’t been to the College World Series in five or six years.”
With the kind of strength up the middle that Thomas and Hallberg provide, the Seminoles might just be on their way back to Omaha.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing “Bill Hass on the ACC” for TheACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.