With their sights set on Omaha, third-ranked Florida State is once again expected to have a potent offensive attack with its lineup.
“We’ve got to understand this year that, yeah, we’re pretty good,” FSU head coach Mike Martin said, as he sat at his desk overlooking the field that bears his name. “But, we were pretty good last year and came within a whisker of making a regional. We had to be successful and beat Louisville and thank God we were.”
The Noles lost some key names from a lineup that finished the season No. 4 in the NCAA in runs scored (502). Dylan Busby, Taylor Walls, and Quincy Nieporte have begun the next phase of their baseball careers. Additionally, Matt Henderson, who led the team in on-base percentage, graduated.
However, FSU welcomes back four of its top hitters from 2017 in Jackson Lueck (9 HR, 54 RBI), Cal Raleigh (9 HR, 39 RBI), Drew Mendoza (10 HR, 33 RBI), and Rhett Aplin (6 HR, 24 RBI). Overall the team returns over 53% of its total home runs from last season and over 47% of its total runs batted in.
Mendoza is primed to take another jump in his sophomore season after missing nearly the entire first half of 2017 due to various injuries. The former Top-50 MLB Draft prospect finished the year as one of the team’s main power threats and is poised to handle the hot-corner when the Noles take the field on Opening Day.
“I’m excited to be there, I’m comfortable there, that’s where my team needs me,” Mendoza said on playing third base this year. “I worked a lot there this off-season. There’s a different velocity coming off the bat and having to field with two hands.”
“He’s played very well, he’s looked very good (this offseason),” Martin said of Mendoza at the plate. “We have to make sure we put the right guys around him that can protect him in a lineup. That’s what we did for Buster Posey, J.D. Drew, and D.J. Stewart.”
After a breakout freshman campaign, Raleigh experienced some adversity during his sophomore season, although he kept his power production. The former High School All-American had a strong fall, returning to his old form at the dish.
“He’s a winner, it’s the only way to describe him,” Martin said of his catcher. “I’m gonna make him mad because I won’t let him catch every game this year. We feel we have some catchers that can give him the day off occasionally. Which means he would still DH.”
Florida State is planning to use ace-pitcher, Tyler Holton, at first base on days he doesn’t start on the hill. The staff wants to better utilize the junior’s ability to swing the stick, as evidence of his success in limited opportunities a year ago.
“It’s exciting, I love having the bat in my hands and helping the team win that way,” said Holton, who mashed two home runs in limited action at the plate in 2017.
“He brings value to our team as a hitter and as a pitcher,” Martin added. “He wants to be out there every day helping his team.”
Filling out the other two spots in the infield will likely be Mike Salvatore at shortstop and Belmont-transfer Rafael Bournigal at second base. Salvatore, a junior who led Northwest Florida State College in hits and runs last season in the JUCO ranks, is being pushed by freshman Cooper Swanson, a newcomer that has impressed in his short time with the team.
Bournigal, who will have one year of eligibility as a graduate transfer, hit .337 at Belmont last season while leading the team in doubles (18). He is the son of former Seminole Rafael Bournigal, who played eight seasons in the majors. Nick Derr is also pushing for time at the position. The sophomore batted .225 with a home run and 17 RBI during his freshman season with the Noles.
In the outfield, Lueck is set to man left field, while J.C Flowers is in line to return to his spot in center field. Skylar Frey is a name to watch for time in the outfield, as the junior transfer from Polk State College hit .340 last season, while also swiping an eye-popping 32 bases.
In right field, Steven Wells is competing with freshman Reese Albert to start on Opening Day. Martin said the strong-armed Wells was “consistently improving offensively,” while Albert enters with plenty of promise, ranking as a Top 100 recruit by Perfect Game prior to arriving at FSU.
The designated hitter role will be filled by several names, depending on the pitching matchup and game. Holton, Aplin, and Raleigh could all see time there as Martin will surely piece together the most optimal lineup each time out. Kyle Cavanaugh is also a candidate to get some swings in the order, as the redshirt senior impressed in the off-season, notching the most doubles on the team during the fall.
“We’ve got a lot of talent (in the lineup),” Lueck said. “We just need to piece things together and play as a team.”
It’s hard to miss.
A casual stroll past Dick Howser Stadium reveals a monstrous structure in left field. Florida State is set to debut its new video board during Fan Day on February 10.
“It’s a tremendous addition to our program that will create a lot of excitement for the fans,” Martin said smiling.
“There’s a lot got going on up there when it’s all hooked up and our objective will be to keep the players from looking at it too much while we’re playing. It’ll be a fan favorite.”
The new board cost FSU $1.3 million to build and measures 60.5 feet wide, nearly 33 feet tall with 1,981 square feet of screen that makes it almost seven times larger than its predecessor. High definition video quality will allow for a better fan experience inside the park, while an all-digital scoreboard will provide a more thorough and dynamic ability to provide information for those in attendance. Video features, in-park hosted game segments, and new-look team/player graphics will all be a part of a production that will improve the game day experience for those at Howser.
Only Mississippi State has a larger videoboard in all of college baseball.