Exceptional hitting wins games, but exceptional pitching wins championships.
For the first time in quite a few years, Florida State will enter a season with a quality mix of talent and experience on its pitching staff.
The Seminoles are excited to welcome back its entire starting weekend rotation for the 2018 season. Tyler Holton, Cole Sands, and Drew Parrish all return, each having a College World Series start under his belt.
“Rarely do you have your entire starting rotation back in college baseball,” FSU head coach Mike Martin said. “If you get two starters coming back, you’re feeling real good, I can’t remember the last time we had all three (returning).”
“Any time you have experience that didn’t just throw key innings, but had key roles…having that experience is always an ace in the sleeve,” pitching coach Mike Bell added.
In Holton, the Noles bring back a First Team All-American who was among the best in the NCAA in ERA and strikeouts a season ago. The southpaw spurned the MLB Draft to return for another season as FSU’s Friday night ace, where this fall his fastball took a step forward, reaching 91 MPH at times.
“I’m looking to improve command on my pitches and slowing the game down,” the junior said on goals for the new season. “When guys get on base and the different situations, there are ways to get out of innings that you maybe didn’t get out of last year.”
“Tyler was known more as a finesse pitcher last year with that great changeup,” Bell said. “Now people will be looking for off-speed this year, so the question for him will become if he can locate his fastball rather than just throwing one.”
On Saturdays this spring, FSU expects to have a revelation start on the hill. Sands enters the 2018 season primed for a breakthrough. The hard-throwing right-hander excelled in the Fall, displaying a fastball that reached 96 MPH and improved command on all his pitches.
“He has jumped as much, if not more in one year than any pitcher I have ever coached,” Martin said, grinning. “This guy is fun to watch, the summer did him a lot of good. He dedicated himself to getting stronger in the weight room and he’s been very impressive.”
“Electric. He’s changed some things around, has more of a two-seam fastball and every hitter so far that’s gone against him has had a tough time picking it up,” Holton furthered on Sands.
The Seminoles are widely-expected to have one of the best weekend rotations in the ACC and part of that is the advantage the team will have on Sundays with Drew Parrish on the hill. The sophomore returns after a breakout freshman campaign in which the lefty was one of FSU’s best pitchers to end the season. Masterful performances late in the year during the post-season have the Noles’ brimming with confidence in Parrish. The native of Rockledge, Fla., worked hard during the off-season to improve, showing a better fastball and more control of his secondary pitches.
“He’s a sneaky bulldog. Just when you think you’ve seen another 85-88 lefty, he’ll sneak a 92 MPH fastball by you,” Bell said. “He’s worked extremely hard to evolve his game and master three pitches to consistently get us deep into the ball game.”
The x-factor of FSU’s staff this season could lie within the right-handed arm of redshirt junior Andrew Karp, who will start the year as the team’s top mid-week guy. The native of Winter Park, Fla., showed flashes of dominance in 2017 as both a starter and bullpen arm. Consistency will be key for Karp, as he’s shown plus ability this off-season with a fastball that reaches 94 and wipeout secondary offerings.
“He’s very mature and has overcome a lot in his life,” Bell said. “He’s worked very hard to get where he is and we’re looking forward to a very big year from him.”
“He’s looked really good this off-season,” Martin added. “In fact I’ve had to contain my excitement, he’s been cooking.”
The experience in rotation will be vital as the Noles are expected to rely on a heavy amount of young arms in the bullpen.
FSU welcomed the No. 5 recruiting class this year per D1 Baseball, due largely to the number of quality pitchers signed. Righthander CJ Van Eyk and lefties Shane Drohan and Austin Pollock headlined the class with Van Eyk (19th round) and Drohan (23rd round) being selected in the 2017 MLB Draft. Van Eyk is competing for a spot as the team’s closer, while Pollack has impressed with an advanced feel for pitching.
“Plus left arm and velocity,” Holton said on Pollock’s ability. “Once he gets command for his third pitch, the changeup, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
LHP Jonah Scolaro, RHP Tyler Ahearn, and RHP Conor Grady are also names to keep an eye on for early opportunities.
“They’ve shown us that they can command their pitches at this level and compete within a college strike zone,” Bell said. “We want to be just as strong in June as we are in February and the only way to do that is to use the depth. They need the experience of pitching in tight situations and uncomfortable jams.”
The Noles also welcome back a few experienced arms in the bullpen as LHP Clayton Kwiatkowski and RHP Will Zirzow return. Kwiatkowski dropped nearly 30 pounds in the off-season and is battling to be the team’s closer come opening day. The sophomore has seen his fastball rise to around 91-92 MPH and is poised to heavily contribute in the back end of the bullpen.
Zirzow experienced a minor setback with an arm injury in the pre-season, but is expected to return at some point during the 2018 campaign. The redshirt senior will be valuable with his experience in a Seminole uniform, as highlighted by his complete game shutout against Auburn to clinch the 2017 NCAA Tallahassee Regional.
As Mike Martin sits in his office that overlooks Dick Howser Stadium, he stares at the photo commemorating his 1,000th career win, a 4-3 victory over Jacksonville in 1998.
“We played a certain team 500 miles south (Miami) before I got 1,000. I only needed one win to get it, and they swept us. I mean I was livid,” Martin said, emphatically waving his arms in the air.
“Now we’re playing Jacksonville and they got a guy on the mound that’s killing us, I mean we can’t sniff him. Late in that game, we’ve got a guy on first, Jose Zabala at third. We’re in a 0-2 count with two outs and I look over at Chip Baker and give him the sign (to steal home),” he continued, excitement building in his voice.
“It doggone worked perfectly for us, the pitcher stepped off and threw it to first and our guy on third slowly creeps up and takes off towards home. I’m thinking, ‘holy smokes we’re going to win this’. Their guy couldn’t get the ball out of his glove in time and that’s how we won that game.”
Stories such as that make Martin special.
“He remembers the 80s, like he does the 90s, like he does the 2000s,” said Bell, who was a pitcher for Martin in 1994 and 1995. “That’s one of the neat things about him, each day coming to work is not just learning baseball, but it’s the history of the players that have come through here.”
With “11” embarking on the NCAA career wins record, needing just 32 victories to pass Augie Garrido for most all-time, 2018 is set to be one of celebration at FSU. However, it’s not something Martin wants his team to focus on.
“For me to sit here and say it doesn’t mean anything, that’s a bunch of bull,” Martin said. “What I don’t want it to turn into is, the players and staff wanting it too much for me. I don’t want any distractions when it’s time to play.”
“We’ve talked about it in the locker room and it’s going to be unreal,” third baseman Drew Mendoza said of Martin eventually reaching the milestone. “To get the record is something you dream about.”
Florida State baseball is synonymous with Martin.
One can’t be mentioned without the other; after all, the field on which the Noles play is named after him. As a player, assistant or head coach, Martin has been involved in 3,026 of the 3,919 games FSU has fielded as a program, roughly 77 percent of its existence. Having won at least 40 games a season in every year he’s been a head coach, his legacy is secure as a legend and an icon in the game of college baseball.
The record will merely be a statistic that validates the claim.
“What he’s done over time, and more importantly, what he’s done consistently over time will never be touched again,” Bell said.
“And if they really know the person (too), then they’ll really appreciate what he’s done for college baseball.”