TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Earlier this week, after a difficult loss to Florida that came at the end of a most difficult two weeks, a frustrated Mike Martin told reporters that his Florida State baseball team would continue to fight for the remainder of its season.
In their first two games against the 16th-ranked Clemson Tigers, the Seminoles have finally started to land a few punches.
A little more than 12 hours removed from turning heads with a 6-2 win on Friday, FSU one-upped itself with a startling, 16-2 romp over the Tigers on a warm Saturday afternoon at Dick Howser Stadium.
Consider it a startling return to form for a team that really, really needed one.
At the time of Friday’s first pitch, the Seminoles had lost seven of nine, had slipped to 97th in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index and were getting set to face a surging Tigers team that hadn’t lost back-to-back games all season.
They have now.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Martin said. “That was one of those that everything went our way and we took advantage of every opportunity that we got.”
Indeed, perhaps the most encouraging thing about Saturday’s victory was just how comprehensive it was.
That comes as no surprise, given the two-touchdown difference on the scoreboard. But it’s still worth recognizing that the Seminoles on Saturday:
“I’m seeing guys starting to do things that we know we have to do to be successful,” Martin said. “It’s starting get a little bit exciting.”
And, as Martin had promised, the Seminoles showed a little bit of fight in the early goings.
Because, truth be told, the game got off to a dubious start when Clemson’s Sam Hall sent the second pitch of the game over the left-field wall for a leadoff home run, a blast punctuated by an exaggerated team celebration that spilled out of the visiting dugout and on to the field.
Safe to say that the Seminoles noticed.
“I was like, ‘OK, that’s how it’s going to be?’” FSU’s J.C. Flowers said.
Clemson’s next batter, preseason All-American Logan Davidson, nearly backed up the bragging with a hard-hit ball to right field.
But Davidson decided to test FSU freshman Alec Sanchez and turned the corner toward second base.
Sanchez, making just his fourth start in right field, then delivered a perfect throw that comfortably beat a sliding Davidson to the bag.
A play like that might register as a footnote in a 16-2 game. But given the circumstances – one run already in and a runner potentially on second with no outs – it meant a lot.
“Our right fielder did an excellent job of finishing his throw and making a perfect throw to second to bail us out,” Martin said with a smile. “You know C.J. felt that, because it gave him a chance to catch his breath.”
After exhaling, Van Eyk settled down and settled in over the next 7 2/3 innings.
A hard-throwing, right-handed sophomore, Van Eyk used a high-90s fastball to bounce back and retire the next eight batters he faced.
The Tampa native went on to finish with four strikeouts, issued only one walk and threw exactly 100 pitches.
“Starting pitching is what it’s about,” Martin said. “And we got excellent starting pitching, obviously. What was encouraging, what was impressive, was he was throwing 97, 98 in his last inning. I can’t sit here and tell you I’ve had a number of those guys. I haven’t.”
FSU’s offense, meanwhile, made Van Eyk’s life easier with the kind of outburst it hadn’t seen in months.
Standing in against a pitcher – Clemson’s Mat Clark – with a 7-0 record and a 1.98 ERA, the Seminoles put up five hits and five runs and chased Clark after just 3 1/3 innings.
Clark had surrendered only one home run all season. Cooper Swanson and Flowers doubled that total on back-to-back swings, a sequence that took place so quickly that the pair had to take their curtain calls together.
Those homers gave the Seminoles a 2-1 lead, and they continued to pour it on from there, roughing up Clemson pitching for five runs in the fourth inning, three in the fifth, four in the sixth, one in the seventh and three more in the eighth.
Flowers finished 3 for 4 with two home runs and five RBIs, Mike Salvatore went 4 for 5 with a homer and seven other Seminoles notched at least one hit.
“We did a very good job of not falling in love with ourselves when we got a lead,” Martin said. “We kept trying to put more runs on the board, and that’s a quality that is not always easy to teach.”
From the Seminoles’ perspective, Saturday’s game looked a lot like some of the ones that came before it – plenty of good swings and plenty of well-hit balls.
The only difference is that that this time they found some gaps.
Or the other side of the fences.
Either way, Flowers said it felt good to see some things finally break the right way.
“I feel like we’ve been in kind of a rut for a little bit,” he said. “And the performance we had today just shows we can overcome that.”
Everyone in FSU’s clubhouse on Saturday afternoon understands that their job is far from done. The Seminoles still have another game against Clemson on Sunday (1 p.m., ESPN2), and they should be in for a challenge next week at Virginia.
Beyond that, FSU can’t yet coast into the NCAA tournament even though its RPI jumped 20 spots, to No. 77, in the span of about 24 hours.
Still, if the Seminoles do achieve their goals – if they make a 42nd consecutive tournament, and if they finish their season in Omaha – it would be hard not to look at these wins over Clemson as an obvious turning point.
“In baseball, you have to be one of those guys that understands how quickly this game can turn on you,” Martin said.
At the time, Martin was talking about the challenging side of the game, and how it can turn today’s heroes into tomorrow’s goats.
But, it stands to reason, the opposite can also be true, too.
Which means that a team that just a few days ago had its coach admitting he was more frustrated than at any point of his 40-year career can maybe turn things around in the span of a few days.
The Seminoles like the sound of that theory.
“I think we’re just going to keep rolling, honestly,” Van Eyk said. “We’re just going to keep trusting ourselves, trusting what we believe in, trusting our coaches and let our talent do the talking.”