WATCH: Baseball opens practice, builds toward Opening Night
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There were overcast skies and chilly temperatures on Friday afternoon at Dick Howser Stadium, but not nearly enough to dampen the enthusiasm for the Florida State baseball team’s first practice of the 2020 season.
“There’s nothing like the first practice,” junior ace C.J. Van Eyk said. “It’s not sunny and 75, but we’re still going to have fun and get after it today.”
The FSU baseball program is embarking on a new era, one without legendary coach Mike Martin in the home dugout for the first time in 40 years.
But despite the big change, things still felt familiar as the Seminoles took batting practice.
Several of the key figures from last year’s team – Van Eyk, right fielder Reese Albert and pitcher Conor Grady, among others – were sprinkled around the field, and even former star Drew Mendoza, decked out in Washington Nationals gear after being drafted by the World Series champs a few months ago, stopped by.
The field, dugout and scoreboard all look the same, as do the team’s practice uniforms.
And, of course, there’s still a Martin guiding the ship. Mike Martin Jr., an assistant coach at FSU since 1998, assumed the top job upon his father’s retirement last summer.
Technically, Friday didn’t mark the younger Martin’s first practice as head coach. The team did, after all, go through a few weeks of fall practices in October. But it was Martin’s first practice with an opponent on the not-so-distant horizon.
The Seminoles will open their season on February 14 against Niagara.
“It’s exciting,” Martin said. “It’s another day, another chance to get better. And that’s what we’ve stressed from the beginning of the fall – we’ve got to learn and grow together and take every single day as an opportunity to get where we want to go.”
Martin has spent his career as a hitting coach, but his new gig affords him the chance to be a little more excited about the Seminoles’ pitching staff.
And for good reason. With Van Eyk leading the way, the Seminoles might boast one of the program’s most promising pitching staffs in recent memory.
Martin believes they’ll be among the best in the country, too.
“I think top five in the country,” Martin said. “I really do.
“I think we’re going to be there at the end of the year as well, with the numbers to prove it.”
Van Eyk, a hard-throwing right-hander, is coming off a season in which he finished with a 10-4 record and 129 strikeouts.
He’s already got an effective fastball, curveball and changeup. And he’s spent the offseason working to add a slider.
“Three pitches is good, but why not have a fourth?” he asked with a smile.
Beyond Van Eyk, Martin has options to fill out his starting rotation. Juniors Conor Grady and Shane Drohan have the most starting experience from last year, and left-handed reliever Antonio Velez could challenge for an expanded role as well.
The Seminoles also welcomed six freshman pitchers to the mix, and Martin said he expects them to see plenty of action early in the season.
“They’re just pups, but they’re really good,” Martin said. “And we’re going to use a lot of them. It’s going to make for a longer game, but I want those guys to have as many opportunities (as they can).”
So much pitching depth has made things challenging for the Seminoles’ hitters in team scrimmages – Martin admitted that they “haven’t been impressive” thus far – but the offense should get a boost with the return of Reese Albert, who is back in the fold after missing the fall while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Albert, the Seminoles’ returning batting-average leader, thanked both his surgeon and team trainer Brandon Stone for getting him healthy again.
“It’s definitely a lot more confident,” Albert said of his shoulder. “I never have to worry about that in the back of my head when I’m about to swing. I’m really thankful for that.”
Added Martin: “It’s very comforting (having Albert back). You know what you’re going to get. He plays hard, leads by example. He’s not a vocal guy, but when he’s around and swinging the bat, it makes your lineup look a lot better.”
As for the rest of the lineup, Martin said that he’s still working through position races at first, second and third base, as well as for the team’s designated hitter spot.
There’s still plenty of time for those things and others to sort themselves out, though. Friday’s was only the first practice and Opening Night is still three weeks away.
And, however Martin fills his lineup card or shapes the direction of his first team at Florida State, his players are confident that they have the right man in charge.
“It’s really critical that we all come out here and lock in on him, because he’s got a lot of good stuff to say all the time,” Albert said. “If we lock in on him and listen to him, I think we’re going to do really well this year.”