BATON ROUGE, La. – Antonio Velez received the ball from Mike Martin as he came on to relieve CJ Van Eyk.
This wasn’t just any late-game appearance.
LSU’s Alex Box Stadium was roaring in the midst of an LSU rally. More than 11,700 fans decked in purple and gold were willing the Tigers through the latter stages of their season in the eighth inning. They took it up a notch when Velez surrendered a single up the middle that put runners on the corners with one out, and even more so when another single tied the game at 4-4.
While it wasn’t the start the junior was hoping for, Velez made a play that shouldn’t get overlooked in the heroics of Florida State’s walk-off thriller.
During the play, in the midst of the chaos, LSU’s Zach Watson overran the bag at second base as the throw from the outfield came in. Velez sprung to cut it off and fired a strike to Nander De Sedas, who covered the bag and tagged Watson for the second out and took the air out of the crowd.
One batter later, Velez forced a ground out.
Inning over. Momentum squashed.
“The fans and the noise actually helped me out,” Velez said following the game. “I love the intensity and it helped me build energy.”
Following the eighth, the rest of the outing was pure dominance from the lefty. Over 4 2/3 innings of relief, Velez gave up just two more hits, while walking none and striking out six.
“He was the man we wanted out there, he was pitching lights out,” Mike Martin said of his reliever. “He wasn’t the least bit concerned with anything other than hitting his spots. No doubt about it, this was a huge chance to show you what he’s made of.”
As Velez and LSU’s Devin Fontenot battled in a duel of relievers that lasted well into extra innings, FSU’s offense knew it had the right guy on the mound to get them back to the plate for another crack.
The faith in the lefty to get the job done was unwavering.
“Antonio just kept giving us chances. The more he dominated, the more confidence we got as a lineup,” junior third baseman Drew Mendoza said. “We could have played 20 innings and I feel like he wouldn’t have allowed a run.”
“I was confident and knew I wouldn’t need to strike everybody out because my defense was strong behind me,” Velez said.
“I felt really good out there.”
The Seminoles didn’t need 20 innings to punch their tickets to the College World Series, Mendoza made sure of that with his heroics. And Velez, with his curveball working magic all evening, made sure the Tigers wouldn’t be heroes first.
The trust Velez has instilled into the coaching staff has built over the last few weeks. The Tampa-area native has made three appearances so far in the NCAA Tournament, tossing nine innings out of the bullpen. He’s allowed just two runs in relief while striking out 10 batters.
“Straight dominance,” catcher Matheu Nelson said. “His slider has been on, his curveball has been on, his changeup has been great.”
“He has proven that no situation is too big for him. He doesn’t care if it’s bases loaded and you put him in with a 2-0 count,” Martin added.
“He’s got a great head on his shoulders. He played at a great high school in Tampa and is a great student, he has a good future ahead of him. He’s going to be a big part of our team in Omaha and certainly next year.”
This time of year, the bullpen is critical to any team’s run to Omaha and in the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park. Velez’s emergence has given FSU a clear primary option out of the pen to bridge the gap between the starter and closer J.C. Flowers.
Mirroring his team’s season, Velez’s surge has come late in the season, when it matters most.
On this night, in one of college baseball’s premier environments, Velez watched Mike Salvatore dig around third and slide home safely, his efforts rewarded as he began his sprint towards Mendoza.
“I was so pumped to join the mobbing and pile,” Velez said with a big grin.
“I was ready to celebrate.”