Florida State staying calm as CWS approaches
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida State coaching staff knew it was a risk. But it was a calculated risk with rewards that could pay off as the season went on – and for years to come.
Coach Mike Martin had never started a true freshman on Opening Day, not to mention using a pair of freshmen as the No. 1 and No. 2 starters.
Martin and pitching coach Mike Bell had seen enough of left-hander Brandon Leibrandt and right-hander Mike Compton in fall practice to know that both would contribute in 2012. But in the spring they came to a stunning conclusion about two guys that had never pitched a collegiate game.
"Those two are the most impressive pitchers that we've got," Martin said.
Leibrandt and Compton delivered beyond expectations. Leibrandt, the son of fomer major-league starter Charlie, went 8-2 with a 2.58 ERA as the Seminoles' ace. He's been exceptional in the NCAA postseason, throwing eight shutout innings (with 10 strikeouts) in a regional win over Samford and allowing just one run in six innings of a Super Regional victory over Stanford.
And Compton went 11-2 with a 2.86 ERA, winning more games than any freshman in the country. He didn't lose a game until mid-May and has allowed just four earned runs in his past three starts.
"The key has been the composure of those starters," Martin said. "They've shown great poise. They've shown the ability to go to the next pitch and not dwell on an error that was made behind them or a home run that was hit."
Their composure and poise will be challenged now as FSU (48-15) makes its 21st College World Series appearance. Leibrandt will start on Friday against Arizona (43-17) at 9 p.m. ET, while Compton will get the ball in FSU's second game on Sunday against either UCLA or Stony Brook. The winner of the double-elimination, four-team pool advances to play the champion of the other pool (Arkansas, Florida, Kent State and South Carolina) in a best-of-three championship series that begins June 24.
Bell, in his first year as FSU's pitching coach, has helped mold both Leibrandt and Compton just as he has done before at other programs. A former FSU pitcher in the mid-1990s, Bell returned to Tallahassee last summer after successful stints at Florida Southern, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
At Tennessee, Bell guided the Volunteers to the 2005 CWS and also coached Luke Hochevar, the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, and then molded James Adkins, who became the Volunteers' career strikeout leader and was drafted 39th overall in 2007.
Bell's next stop was Oklahoma, where he coached 2009 first-round pick Garrett Richards and All-American closer Ryan Duke.
Bell has done a remarkable job with FSU's veterans, a number of which have trimmed more than two runs off their 2011 ERAs.
Closer Robert Benincasa (1.25 ERA, 15 saves) and middle reliever Mack Waugh (3-2, 2.42 ERA) have helped anchor a bullpen that struggled in past years. And Bell also recognized the talents of Gage Smith, a right-hander who didn't pitch at all a year ago but is 5-0 with a 3.12 ERA this season.
FSU has seven pitchers with an ERA under 3.50.
"They all have contributed in one way or another," Bell said. "And it's going to be very important for us as we continue in the postseason."
Leibrandt and Compton were freshmen wild cards with impressive high school resumes going into their first collegiate season. But they went a combined 19-4, not by overpowering hitters but instead by inducing ground balls and going deep into starts.
"It's definitely been a special year," Compton said. "As a freshman, you never really expect anything like this. I'm grateful for it."
Neither is awe-struck by pressure situations. Leibrandt said he was more nervous for his first collegiate start in February than his starts in the regional or Super Regional.
But the CWS is different. Crowds of 30,000-35,000 pack TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., and every game is televised nationally.
"I watched it on TV as a little kid thinking, ‘Wow, this is awesome. Maybe one day,' " Leibrandt said. "And it's happening."
FSU has made 21 trips to the CWS and come home empty-handed each time. And there were doubts that this FSU team would even challenge for a trip to the CWS with a pair of freshmen starting pitchers and three more freshmen in the starting lineup.
But veterans took the newcomers under their wing and never wavered in their goal of returning to the CWS after missing out last season.
When asked if he thought FSU would fall short in 2012, junior first baseman Jayce Boyd immediately said, "No doubt in my mind. There's still no doubt in my mind that we're going to win."
FSU may have dodged a tough challenge in that the Seminoles are on the opposite site of the bracket as two-time defending national champion South Carolina and Florida, which won all three games against FSU this season.
But FSU will have its challenges in a pool that includes Arizona, UCLA and Stony Brook (which knocked off Miami, Central Florida and LSU to get to the CWS).
Arizona will start junior right-hander Kurt Heyer, who went 12-2 with a 2.28 ERA and was drafted in the sixth round by the St. Louis Cardinals. They also feature a lineup that has seven players with a batting average of .325 or greater.
FSU senior outfielder James Ramsey, who was also selected in the first round by St. Louis, said that while many people focus on the CWS as an eight-team field, he thinks the format is similar to what FSU just finished.
"I didn't really understand it my sophomore year," Ramsey said of FSU's last trip to the CWS. "It's a regional and then it's a super regional. There's two regionals, and those other four teams don't matter that much. So you have Arizona, and you're trying to get off to a good start."