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|GAME AT A GLANCE|
|Turning Point: Florida State was in control of the game since chasing Zack Weiss with two runs in the first, but UCLA had one great chance to get back into the game, in the sixth. The Bruins loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth, and Cody Keefer singled to cut FSU’s lead to 4-1. But FSU starter Scott Sitz struck out the next three batters in order to strand the bases loaded, and UCLA never threatened again.
The Hero: Sitz submitted the performance of his career in the biggest start of his three-year career. The junior righthander had completed five full innings in just five of his first 12 starts this year, but he threw a career-high 102 pitches over a season-high 6 2/3 innings against a UCLA offense that typically grinds pitchers down. He pounded the strike zone, issuing just one walk, and used his sharp slurve to rack up eight strikeouts.
You Might Have Missed: UCLA freshman David Berg finished the season with 50 appearances, one behind the Division I single-season record set by Florida’s Connor Falkenbach in 2005. And the sidewinder was characteristically stellar in his final appearance of the season, allowing just one hit over 2 1/3 scoreless innings and recording two double plays. He finished the year 5-3, 1.46, and tied South Carolina’s John Taylor (last year) for second on the single-season appearances list.
OMAHA—No team in college baseball draws more walks than Florida State, which had drawn 375 free passes heading into Tuesday’s College World Series elimination game against UCLA.
Like the Yankees, Florida State never seems to waver from its commitment to seeing as many pitches as possible. When opposing pitchers struggle to find the strike zone, the Seminoles make them pay.
UCLA pitchers issued eight walks Tuesday, and the price the Bruins had to pay was their season. The opportunistic Seminoles took an early lead and cruised to a 4-1 win, knocking the Bruins out of the CWS.
On the other side, Florida State starter Scott Sitz attacked the strike zone, allowing just one walk in a season-high 6 2/3 innings. Sitz retired the first nine batters of the game, and he was able to miss bats with his sharp slurve, helping him rack up eight strikeouts.
In a striking contrast, UCLA’s pitchers struggled to put away FSU hitters, who fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch and struck out just three times. The Seminoles set the tone in the first inning, scoring two runs on four walks and a single to chase Bruins starter Zack Weiss. Leadoff man Sherman Johnson jump-started the rally with a walk, and FSU’s veterans followed suit.
“I mean, they don’t chase, and we weren’t in the zone,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “And that’s a lethal combination. I’ll tell you what, Johnson played like a senior. He was the best player on the field tonight—I mean, really good at-bats. Had a couple 0-2 at-bats, and he got on. I credit them a lot. They schooled some of our younger guys, in my opinion—Weiss and (freshman lefty Grant) Watson a little bit. Not in a negative way. It’s just that older hitters, from (Devon) Travis to (Jayce) Boyd to (James) Ramsey to Johnson, they kind of got the better of the younger guys, in my opinion. And that was the difference in the game.”
Johnson reached safely in each of his first four at-bats, walking in his first two trips, singling and scoring Florida State’s third run in the fourth, and doubling in the seventh. After spending time hitting in the No. 2 and No. 6 holes earlier in his career, Johnson has become an ideal table setter as a senior; he ranks second in the nation with 67 walks, just two off the lead.
“He’s a pest—that’s the only way I can describe Sherman Johnson,” FSU coach Mike Martin said. “When he faced the guy (UCLA closer Scott Griggs) throwing 90-whatever, the guy was bringing up little bitty baseballs there in the ninth inning, and Sherman gets up there and goes seven or eight pitches, maybe nine pitches. There is your consummate leadoff hitter . . . He is no fun if you are in the other dugout. I just thank God I’m in the dugout wearing the same uniform he’s wearing.”
“I think any time I can get on base, any of those guys behind me that can swing the bat—there are two runs right there,” Johnson said.
That’s exactly how it played out in the first and fourth innings Tuesday. Johnson hit a one-out single up the middle in the fourth, and the next four Seminoles all reached safely. Two runs scored on Jayce Boyd’s perfect squeeze bunt, as freshman third baseman Kevin Kramer overran the ball, and Devon Travis never slowed down when he reached third, racing home for FSU’s fourth run.
That play was a perfect example of FSU’s upperclassmen (Boyd and Travis) getting the best of a UCLA freshman (Kramer). The bunt was perfect, and Kramer had no shot to throw Johnson out at the plate, but when he failed to execute a barehanded pickup, he let his focus lapse for just a moment, and Travis took full advantage.
“Certainly Jayce’s surprise bunt surprised me,” Martin said. “Jayce laid down the big bunt, and Devon did such a great job of being heads-up and rounding the bag. I’ve been trying to do this a good while, and man, I’d love to take credit for that, but Jayce read it on his own—a couple for him, a couple for Devon. It was a team win, but certainly it was dictated by the outstanding pitcher.”
Sitz is yet another FSU upperclassman who rose to the occasion Tuesday. The junior righthander had completed five full innings in just five of his first 12 starts this year, but his aggressiveness in the strike zone coupled with a UCLA offense that was uncharacteristically impatient allowed him to conserve pitches and work deeper into the game than usual.
Sitz entered the sixth inning just shy of the 60-pitch mark, so when the Bruins loaded the bases with no outs, Martin decided his starter had plenty left in the tank, and he stuck with him. Too often, fans and reporters criticize coaches for leaving a starter in too long, or pulling him too early—so let’s make a point of crediting Martin for making exactly the right move in the sixth inning.
After giving up an RBI single to Cody Keefer, Sitz used his breaking ball to record three straight strikeouts—against cleanup man Jeff Gelalich, No. 5 hitter Trevor Brown and No. 6 hitter Pat Valaika—to strand the bases loaded. He sprinted off the mound with a whoop of exhilaration.
“I was just thinking to myself, ‘This could be the last batter that I face, so I’ve got to get him,’ and I gave it my all,” Sitz said of the at-bat against Valaika. “They stuck with me. And after that third strikeout, I don’t think I’ve ever been more pumped up in my life.”
Sitz went back and got two more outs in the seventh before giving up a two-out single and exiting after a career-high 102 pitches. Fellow junior righties Hunter Scantling and Robert Benincasa took it from there, combining to retire the next seven hitters to end the game.
It was a second straight disappointingly flat performance from a UCLA team that won 48 games and entered the College World Series riding a wave of very strong play in all phases of the game. Savage was right to call his departing junior class one of the best in school history, but on this night, Florida State’s juniors and seniors executed their plan, while the Bruins did not.
“We didn’t play very well, I think everybody saw that,” Savage said. “The last two games, I don’t know, you can’t really put your thumb on it, but Arizona was better and Florida State was better.”