OMAHA, Neb. – To Mike Martin, it felt like jail.
Not even two months ago, Martin’s Florida State baseball team was mired in the type of slump rarely seen in Tallahassee. The Seminoles had lost 13 of 20 games, held a place near the bottom of the ACC standings and had the creeping knowledge that, if they kept on their present course, they’d all be headed to an early summer vacation.
Not only did Martin feel as if he’d been locked in a cell, but the Seminoles were in danger of being locked out of the NCAA tournament for the first time in 42 years.
Martin’s son, FSU assistant Mike Martin Jr., called it a “death spiral” and “as bad as I’d ever seen it” in 22 years as a coach.
“We were looking at each other as coaches, dead in the eye, saying, ‘I hope everybody understands we’re in jail and hopefully we’re going to get out of it,” Martin said.
“… We were in San Quentin, baby.”
These days, however, Martin is on the other side of the wall and smiling.
Because after making the NCAA tournament and then ripping through both a regional and super regional, the Seminoles have indeed escaped. And their rebirth has come in the form of a stunning trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where FSU is among the last eight teams standing in the hunt for a national championship.
The Seminoles will open their CWS campaign against Arkansas on Saturday night (7 p.m., ESPN).
“I ain’t gonna get all teary-eyed on you,” Martin said after FSU’s win in the Baton Rouge Super Regional last week. “But I wanted this so bad for our young men.”
The feeling was mutual.
Martin announced last summer that he’d be retiring after the 2019 season, which means that every player on the roster knew that they would make up his last team. And his last chance to claim a national title.
For a while, though, that team looked more likely to claim some dubious firsts. After that 7-13 stretch, it seemed a virtual certainty that this would be the first team of Martin’s tenure to not win at least 40 games.
Instead, the Seminoles reached the 40-win plateau last week at LSU.
And, after a late slide that saw them lose games to Jacksonville and Stetson, the Seminoles came perilously close to being Martin’s first team to finish on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
Instead, they made the field – officially as one of the tournament committee’s “last four in” – then hit the road as a No. 3 seed and haven’t lost since.
“Nobody wants to say we had our doubts,” third baseman Drew Mendoza said. “But we might have had our doubts.”
In his next breath, though, Mendoza insisted that the Seminoles never lost faith in each other or their coaches. They believed, perhaps with a bit of defiance, that they were doing things the right way. And that if they kept doing things the right way, sooner or later they would be rewarded in kind.
Finally, on a Friday night in Durham, N.C., last month, their fortunes started to turn.
Behind a one-hit shutout from surging sophomore CJ Van Eyk, the Seminoles pasted North Carolina State, 11-0, in the ACC tournament.
No one knows for sure if beating the Wolfpack is what clinched FSU’s NCAA tournament spot, but it sure didn’t hurt.
A week later, the Seminoles made their way to Athens, Ga., and their bats more than made the trip: A 13-7 victory over Florida Atlantic to start, then a 12-3 thumping of top-seeded Georgia a day later, and, finally, another 10-1 rout over the Bulldogs to clinch the regional.
“We got on a roll,” Mendoza said.
And they rolled through Baton Rouge, needing just two games to dispatch higher-seeded LSU despite playing in what might be college baseball’s most intimidating venue.
The Seminoles didn’t lose their nerve when they fell behind by four runs early in Game 1, nor did they blink when they watched a three-run lead of their own slip away in Game 2.
Whether in the form of a home run from Reese Albert, a pinpoint pickoff throw from catcher Matheu Nelson or a walk-off single by Mendoza at the end of a 12-inning marathon, the Seminoles in Baton Rouge did something they sometimes struggled to do during the regular season:
They produced answers. Every time.
“All year, it’s been some guys are hot, some guys are cold, and it had never really been clicking on all cylinders,” Mendoza said. “I think, now, we’re almost there. …
“It’s been building all season and I think we’re playing our best baseball now.”
That’s a welcome sight for the Seminoles and a scary thought for the other seven teams here in Omaha.
Because, despite their storybook ride here, the Seminoles are hardly some Cinderella from out of nowhere. They opened the season as a consensus Top-15 team, and with a roster featuring returning All-Americans and future Major League draft picks.
Were it not for everything that happened between February and June, seeing the Seminoles in Omaha would normally come as no surprise.
“It’s still surreal to me right now,” said Van Eyk, 10-3 with a 3.80 ERA in his first year as a starter. “It’s great. From the last four in to getting there (to Omaha).
“Nobody really thought it, I don’t think. But we’re here and that’s all that matters.”
That’s all that matters to Martin, who figures to be in the brightest of spotlights during FSU’s stay in Omaha.
The “winningest” coach in college athletics history has already held one teleconference with out-of-town reporters, and he spent Thursday morning recording videoboard shoots with the NCAA’s media team.
Beyond that, Martin is expected to be heavily featured during ESPN’s broadcast of the Detroit-Kansas City game taking place at TD Ameritrade Park on Thursday night, he’ll go through the annual College World Series media day circus on Friday, and, later will do a guest spot with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on Sportscenter.
All that before the Seminoles have even played their first game.
Not that he minds. After all, there’s a reason that four of Martin’s favorite words are, “See you in Omaha.”
And Martin’s players are happy to see him here.
Because after an up-and-down campaign and a brief stint in baseball jail, the Seminoles are now free to pursue that which they long for the most:
A deep run in Omaha, and just maybe a championship for their head coach as he nears the end of his legendary career.