Florida Gulf Coast finished 2012 with a 26-31 record, but the team is off to a 13-3 start this year and ranked No. 25 in the nation, thanks in large part to the team's pitching staff.
"This has been a great group to be around so far," FGCU pitching coach Forrest Martin said. "And we feel like it's a group that could do some pretty special things."
The Eagles currently have a 1.79 team ERA, one of the best in the country.
Of the team's 11 pitchers, seven are juniors or seniors who battled through a tough 2012 season, during which four of the team's weekend series—and two more midweek series—were against teams who went on to play in NCAA regionals.
"We had a really young team last year and they kind of got thrown into the fire," Martin said. "We played an incredibly tough schedule last season and I just think it's a level of trust. You'll hear just about every pitching coach tell pitchers to trust their stuff, and I think just going through it last year and just realizing what they're capable of doing (helped). And as we started playing better at the end of last season, I feel like it just carried over into this year. We have a great group of guys on both sides of the ball."
Martin knows he has a talented staff but believes the new BBCOR bats have helped their development, as well.
"I really think that the new bats have done a lot to help the pitching game, just in terms of being able to bring the fastball back into the game, so to speak," Martin said. "You watch games these days and they play much more like a major league game. Through my playing career and in college and in the last five or six years, it had gotten to where college baseball was a breaking ball game. You had to pitch to miss bats, and now you can really have pitchers put a premium on being able to locate fastballs and movement is something that really plays. It's finally gotten to the point where you just have to miss sweet spots, you don't have to miss entire barrels and I think it's going to dramatically help with the development of pitchers for the next level . . . (more so) than five or six years ago with those rolled composite bats that had 170-pound guys front-footing balls out of the park."
Another factor that has helped Florida Gulf Coast recently is the emergence of White Sox lefthander Chris Sale. Sale was a first-round pick from the school in 2010, pitched all of 10 innings in the minor leagues. He pitched out of Chicago's bullpen in 2010 and 2011 before transitioning to the rotation last year and becoming an all-star. Over 30 games in 2012, he went 17-8, 3.05 with 192 strikeouts and 51 walks over 192 innings.
"It's been great because I know that we're a young university, so a lot of people didn't grow up hearing about Florida Gulf Coast University," Martin said. "So it's put us on the map, so to speak, because as much success as he's had already at the big league level and how quickly he rose through the ranks . . . To go from throwing 111 innings for us as a Friday night guy to get to the big leagues and touching 101 (mph) on the radar gun in the same year, I think it did a lot in terms of basically just people asking, 'Where did he come from?' "
But Sale not only helped put Florida Gulf Coast on the map. He purchased a house in Naples, Fla., and still works out and trains in the offseason at the school's facilities. And he's not the only big leaguer who does so in the winter to prepare for spring training. Johan Santana, Derek Lowe and Bronson Arroyo are the other big names in a group that also includes about 10 other pro players.
"For my pitchers, I text them and let them know exactly when those guys are going to be throwing," Martin said. "Because when you can see guys who have had success in the big leagues and see how they approach their work and how they go about their business when no one's really standing over the top of them, it helps guys click in and see exactly what the next level of pitcher looks like."
Florida Gulf Coast's ace is junior righthander Ricky Knapp, the son of Dodgers minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp.
"Ricky Knapp is a special pitcher," Martin said. "What's between his ears makes him probably more special than anything else. He's just completely unflappable, it seems, no matter what the situation is, what the circumstances are, he's just the same guy day in and day out. He has an advanced approach to pitching that stems from growing up around a big league pitching coach."
Knapp's fastball sits anywhere between 84-92 mph. He throws a lot of strikes and mixes in an above-average changeup, as well as a slider and a curveball. On the season, Knapp is 4-0, 0.87 with 22 strikeouts and just two walks over 31 innings.
"He understands how to get hitters out," Martin said. "He may throw his fastball at 85-86 and then at 90-92 in the same batter. He just has an innate feel for throwing off the hitter's timing and he's got kind of a gift for getting hitters out. For him to not give into that mentality to try to miss bats and just trusting that he can let guys hit the ball and that he's going to control the contact by varying his timing . . . He's just got that feel for making a pitch do what he wants it to do and just the confidence to throw any pitch in any count . . . He's a special individual in terms of mental approach."
Behind Knapp, the Eagles have junior lefthander Brandon Bixler. Despite his 5-foot-10, 169-pound frame, Bixler has premium stuff.
"Bixler has some of the most electric stuff on the staff," Martin said. "It's almost like a lefthanded Sonny Gray in terms of his delivery. He has high tilt—that front side is way up and he's got probably the longest stride on the team."
His fastball sits in the 90-92 mph range and has been as high as 95. He throws a hard curveball with 12-6 break that he uses as an out pitch, and his delivery creates a lot of deception for hitters. But it's his changeup that has been the biggest difference-maker this season. Bixler became comfortable with the pitch this summer with the help of Cotuit head coach Mike Roberts in the Cape Cod League.
"I felt the challenge of pitching in the Cape would be good for him and, even though he didn't get a whole lot of innings up there, I feel like it still played into the level of confidence he has right now," Martin said. "He can dominate a lot of games with his fastball, but he developed that changeup, and I know early on in the season, Coach Roberts was having him throw—every single 0-0 (count) was a changeup and every 2-0 was a changeup. I think being forced into doing that, he developed a lot of confidence in that pitch and it's made it to where, when everything's working, he has three plus pitches."
Bixler was held out of action last weekend with a minor oblique strain, but over his first three starts he is 2-0, 0.56 with 21 strikeouts and seven walks over 16 innings.
But the Eagles' pitching success this season extends beyond the starting staff. The bullpen has been equally impressive, starting with closer Harrison Cooney, a 6-foot-3, 196-pound junior righthander.
Cooney did not pitch a lot at Vero Beach (Fla.) High and was under the radar as a prospect. He emerged late in his senior year of high school and chose to pitch for Florida Gulf Coast over Miami and Louisiana State. This season, he has blossomed for the Eagles, firing his fastball in the 92-94 mph range and topping out at 96. His slider sits in the 80-84 mph range and his changeup is typically between 79-80 with sharp, late break.
"He really took off this past fall and has started to really gain the confidence in his offspeed," Martin said. "He's always had an incredible arm and an ability to throw strikes, but he's really started to develop consistency with his offspeed. His slider is at times a plus pitch and he's been throwing it consistently for strikes in whatever count and wherever he needs it. And his changeup has also been above average . . . A lot of scouts told me after his first outing that they thought his changeup was a splitter because of his natural armside run, and his ball naturally kind of has some run and sink on it, even at that velocity. So his changeup, when he's on top of it, it dives off the table and goes the other direction, and it's a swing-and-miss pitch when he's down in the zone."
Setting up Cooney are senior lefthander R.J. Brown and redshirt junior righthander Danny Patrick. Brown stands 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. He pitches in the 88-92 mph range and his go-to secondary pitch is his changeup, but he also throws a slurvy breaking ball.
"He's been our dependable, go-to guy in our 'pen for the better part of three years," Martin said. "In his freshman year, he was a low-80s guy and every year he's just seemed to gain two to three miles an hour. He's just that guy who's fearless on the mound. He just goes out there and attacks hitters with his stuff, and every single time you put him out there, no matter what the situation is, he's the guy we want in the game in those middle innings when our starting pitcher gets in trouble."
Patrick is 6-foot-3 and 196 pounds. He went to Jupiter (Fla.) High, but started his college career at Pepperdine before transferring to Palm Beach State (Fla.) JC and then Florida Gulf Coast. He made nine appearances last season and used a redshirt after experiencing elbow tendinitis. Patrick pitches in the 88-91 mph range, as well, with a good downhill plane to the plate and lots of strikes.
"He's started to really figure some things out and develop some consistency with his breaking ball, which is helping him to go along with the changeup he's always had," Martin said. "He's been a great surprise for us in terms of how well he's done and he's been very reliable for us and has pitched some big innings for us."
Since Florida Gulf Coast's baseball team first started playing in 2003, the program has produced 10 draft picks, but with the pitchers mentioned above, as well as position players like junior outfielder Sean Dwyer, junior second baseman Brandon Bednar and redshirt senior first baseman Brooks Beisner, that number could nearly double in 2013.
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