Florida State Shows Its Potential In Win At No. 1 Florida
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Mike Martin Jr. woke up Tuesday with a premonition about how the rivalry showdown between his No. 19 Florida State Seminoles and the top-ranked Florida Gators would go.
“I woke up this morning and said it’s going to be a tight one,” he said. “It’s going to be low scoring when you look at both pitching staffs.
“It was exactly that.”
In recent history between these two rivals, that kind of game was bad news for the Seminoles. Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan built his program into a juggernaut around pitching. When these two powerhouses matched up – whether it was in their regular-season midweek series where a staff’s depth is the key or whether it was in a super regional where frontline pitching is on display – Florida State hadn’t been able to get an edge on the mound. As a result, Florida had won 11 straight games in the series and 16 of the last 17.
On Tuesday, however, Florida State flipped that script. Lefthanders Antonio Velez, a crafty senior, and Parker Messick, a powerful freshman, combined to throw a three-hit shutout to defeat Florida, 2-0. The loss snapped the Gators’ 16-game winning streak to start the season, the longest in program history, and knocked off the sport’s last remaining undefeated team.
It also got the monkey off the backs of the Seminoles (11-5), who hadn’t beaten their rivals since 2016.
“It was a great feeling,” Velez said. “It was a team win. We came out ready to play and knew what we had to do and accomplished our goal.”
Martin Jr., who is in his first season as head coach after being promoted last June following the retirement of Mike Martin, picked up his first win in his first try against the Gators. Getting the rivalry, which skewed heavily toward the Gators over the last several years (Florida is 24-6 in the series since the start of the 2012 season) is part of his brief.
It’ll take much more than one win to do that. And while it was an important win symbolically, Martin Jr. brushed aside what Tuesday meant for him.
“I hadn’t even thought about it,” he said. “I want it for them. I want their hard work and stick-to-itiveness, if you will, to be rewarded. Because we’ve had our share of struggles.
“It was a good clean ballgame and a lot of times that can propel you for a while.”
Florida State this year is built around its pitching, which hasn’t often been the case in Tallahassee over the years. Typically, the Seminoles stand out for their offense. But this year, its strength is on the mound and it showed against Florida.
Velez and Messick did a good job quieting the Gators’ offense. Velez sprinkled his changeup in liberally to hold Florida to one hit and two walks in six innings, while striking out seven. Messick was a little firmer, running his fastball up to 94 mph, and struck out seven batters in three innings to earn his first career save.
Messick said after he found out Velez was starting against Florida, he told the senior to go as long as he could and he’d clean up the rest. Velez worked efficiently to throw six innings on 78 pitches, maxing out his pitch count. And, true to his word, Messick took it home in the biggest game of his life – on the road, in front of 5,276 fans at McKethan Stadium against a huge rival.
“They told me to get in my bulldog mode,” Messick said. “It’s just my little thing. I tune everything else out, tune the crowd out and just live for the big moment. Go into my bulldog mode and just enjoy it.”
The pitching that was there Tuesday night has been there pretty much all season for the Seminoles. They have a 2.47 team ERA and a Preseason All-American at the front of their rotation in righthander C.J. Van Eyk (1-1, 1.31). The staff behind him has proved to be deep with lefthander Shane Drohan (0-1, 4.08) and righthander Connor Grady (2-0, 3.00) making for a formidable rotation and a bevy of pitchers stepping up in the bullpen, like righthander Chase Haney (2-0, 1.54), Messick (1-1, 0.77) and Velez (1-0, 0.52), who made his first five appearances out of the bullpen before Tuesday’s start.
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That Florida State was able to get the kind of pitching it did on the road against Florida made it that much more impressive, but the way they defended was perhaps even more encouraging.
Florida State did not make an error Tuesday night marking the first time in 16 games this season that it played clean baseball. And it was more than just the routine – right fielder Robby Martin also robbed a home run off the bat of Kirby McMullen in the first inning. That kept Florida State staked to an early 1-0 lead, changing the complexion of the game.
Martin Jr. said he hadn’t realized Florida State hadn’t previously played an errorless game this season and called it embarrassing that it took until the 16th game to do so. But the Seminoles have been working hard to find answers defensively, including using mental skills coaches and trying things like taking groundballs while wearing headphones.
Florida State has a .947 team fielding percentage, which simply isn’t good enough. But the Seminoles are going to keep working to improve and Tuesday showed that hard work seems to be paying off.
“You start doubting yourself at times because you’re not playing clean baseball,” Martin Jr. said. “We’ve been in ballgames. We’ve kicked it around and thrown it all over the place. But we’re just going to learn and grow. That’s our motto.
“We’re going to learn and grow together and stick together and keep pushing and see where we’re at the end of the year.”
The Seminoles are also searching for their groove offensively and hitting .250/.412/.391 as a team. If they don’t get straightened out at the plate and in the field, their prowess on the mound won’t matter.
But if the Seminoles can stabilize the defense and play closer to their potential at the plate, they have significant upside thanks to the way they can pitch.
“There are some bad dudes down there,” Martin Jr. said. “That’s why it’s going to be a fun year when we get cleaned up and swinging the bats the way we’re capable of. It’s a good group.”
For one day at least, Florida State showed off that potential. The fact it did so on the road against the top-ranked team in the country and against a rival should give the Seminoles a building block for the rest of the season.