‘Noles 9: Carson Montgomery’s debut, bullpen struggles, Tyler Martin’s approach and more
When Carson Montgomery arrived at Florida State, he was joining what is expected to be among the most talented and deepest pitching staffs in all of college baseball in 2021. Even with all of his talent, he was far from a lock to begin the season in FSU’s rotation. So, when head coach Mike Martin Jr. announced Thursday he would be the Seminoles’ Game 2 starter on the opening weekend, it was a testament to how quickly the No. 1 rated freshman in the country made his presence felt in a crowded group of pitchers.
After Florida State lost 7-4 on Opening Day to North Florida, a game in which Martin bluntly said the Seminoles “stunk in just about every facet”, the pressure was on Montgomery to set the tone early and tip the scales back in Florida State’s favor.
His final line (4 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 2 R, 0 ER, and 4 K) won’t blow anyone out of the water, but the freshman showed that his composure and ability to limit early damage are on par with his exceptional raw talent.
His first fastball clocked in at 92 mph but increased to the 93-94 range as the game progressed. His cutter and slider were also effective, particularly against right-handed hitters. Three of his four strikeouts came from his slider, which was lethal when he spotted it down and away in the zone against righties.
The most encouraging part of his debut was how he got out of a first inning that appeared to be heading towards disaster and then took control the rest of the way. After striking out his first two hitters, he allowed a double to Blake Marabell. A subsequent throwing error by Nander De Sedas on a slow roller up the middle extended the inning. Montgomery’s next three batters resulted in a walk, single and walk to load the bases. Martin immediately got Bryce Hubbart warming up in the bullpen.
A lot of pitchers making their first career start might have come unglued in that situation, but Montgomery quickly forced a soft groundout to short and got out of the inning. The freshman hurled 34 pitches in his first inning of college baseball and lost a bit of control after the De Sedas error that should have ended the inning. However, he settled down, limited the damage and tossed three scoreless innings before being pulled, which is exactly what you want to see from a guy making his first career start.
“That was good to see,” Martin Jr. said. “The last thing you want is not to be able to stretch guys a little bit. You know, they go into their first start, they’re roughly 60 pitches and, you know, three-week span and we built him up to 60 pitches, so you want to get past that. He did overcome a little bit of adversity and a couple of calls didn’t go his way and I saw what I wanted to see.”
Montgomery threw just 43 pitches in his final three innings and allowed only two baserunners during that stretch. Florida State went on to win 14-7.
While Montgomery was promising in his debut, the most impressive starting pitcher of the weekend was Conor Grady in the Seminoles’ third and final game. The fourth-year junior was by far the most proven starting option on the staff coming into 2021, starting 12 games over the past two seasons with a 3.00 ERA. He showed Sunday that he might have another level to reach in his fourth season after leading the Seminoles to a series-clinching 8-4 win.
Florida State pitching coach Jimmy Belanger said during the fall he’s increased his fastball velocity to the 91-93 mph range. Grady didn’t show that Sunday, topping out at just 90 mph, but the pitch had excellent sinking action and he consistently commanded the strike zone with it.
His changeup was outstanding and he also got several swings-and-misses with his slider. Grady’s final line was 5.1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, and 6 K.
“You know what you’re going to get every time he goes out there,” Martin Jr. said about Grady following Sunday’s game. “He might get hit, but he’s not going to beat himself.”
The most remarkable thing about his outing was efficiency through his first four innings.
Grady pitch count by inning
|Inning||# of Pitches Thrown|
|6th||9 (removed after one out)|
After allowing a one-out single to Robbie Scott in the first inning, Grady then retired the next 12 batters before running into a bit more trouble in the fifth inning when he faced the meat of the UNF order for the second time. He allowed two of his three walks in that half-inning but still managed to retire the side without any damage.
In the sixth inning, he easily struck out UNF’s No. 9 hitter on four pitches but then allowed a double and four-pitch walk to Abraham Sequera and Scott, respectively, in his third time facing them before being pulled. The two earned runs with which was Grady charged came off a three-run homer right after he was removed.
Grady might not have the requisite overpowering stuff to be a starter who can consistently last three times through the order. Maybe that changes if he can showcase the increased velocity Belanger referred to as the season progresses. However, even if he’s a guy who mostly survives only twice through the order, he’ll have a chance to be among the best Sunday starters in the nation this year.
As encouraging as Montgomery and Grady were, Parker Messick’s rough start on Opening Day was among the biggest surprises over the weekend.
The redshirt freshman cruised through his first two innings but could get only one out in the third before being removed. The redshirt freshman allowed four hits and five earned runs and recorded just seven outs.
“They hit a lot of different things,” Martin Jr. said. “There was a lot of middle-middle right there, belt–high…Very uncharacteristic of him.”
Messick did not inspire a lot of confidence Saturday, but there’s no reason to panic. He had an outstanding offseason, becoming a bit leaner and adding a fourth pitch to go along with his 90-93 mph fastball, plus changeup and breaking ball.
All of that after a Freshman All-American season in 2020 where he totaled 19 strikeouts and just two walks in 11.2 innings. He was not hitting the corners Saturday as well as he did during the fall, but he walked only one batter and two of the four hits he allowed were soft grounders through the hole.
The bottom line is, Saturday was likely an outlier. He threw the first Florida State pitch in a live game in nearly a full calendar year, so there was probably some added adrenaline. His 2020 sample and his performance throughout the fall are much more reflective of the kind of pitcher he is.
2. The starting pitching was mostly excellent, as expected, but the struggles from the majority of Florida State’s bullpen were rather surprising.
Veterans Chase Haney, Bryce Hubbart and Clay Kwiatkowski (more on them below) had strong performances, but here are what the other six guys out of the bullpen did on opening weekend.
FSU bullpen vs. UNF minus Haney, Hubbart and Kwiatkowski
The last of those four pitchers listed all made their Florida State debuts this weekend, so some early growing pains should be expected. However, Anderson and Hare combined for 28.2 innings over the previous two seasons, so their lacking control of the strike zone was puzzling.
“They weren’t sharp,” Martin Jr. said following Saturday’s loss. “That’s not like them.”
Florida State is expected to have one of the deepest and most reliable bullpens in the country this year, but they’ll need to resolve the walks issue in a hurry. In a loaded conference like the ACC, having only three reliable arms out of the pen will not be a recipe for success.
Martin wanted to get all of his young pitchers some work in the series, but three of his freshmen in Hunter Perdue, Wyatt Crowell and Andrew Armstrong will have to wait to make their debuts.
3. All that being said, Haney, Hubbart and Kwiatkowski were bright spots out of the bullpen. Those three pitchers combined allowed just three hits and walked only two batters in 7.2 innings of work.
Kwiatkowski and Haney’s outings were one of the few positives from Saturday’s loss. Kwiatkowski entered in the fifth inning with Florida State trailing 6-4. He inherited runners on first and second with no outs but struck out his first two batters before forcing a week ground out to second to get out of that frame. Kwiatkowski retired all six batters he faced.
Haney, who wore No. 11 in honor of Mike Martin Sr., entered Saturday’s game under even worse circumstances. He inherited two runners in scoring position and struck out Marabell on three pitches. Next, he walked Alex Kachler to load the bases but quickly forced a 6-4-3 double play to get out of the inning scoreless.
Haney returned to close the game out the next day, allowing just one hit and striking out four hitters in two innings to get his first save of the season.
“When we feel like they’re high-leverage situations, (Haney) is going to get the bulk of those as long as he’s fresh,” Martin Jr. said.
Martin Jr. went on to say that Haney laughed at him when he asked if he felt good enough to pitch for the second day in a row. The sixth-year senior has been extremely reliable in the backend of the Florida State bullpen over the last several years with his funky sidearm release. This season looks like it will be more of the same from the big righty.
4. Tyler Martin last season showed a knack for his ability to get on base and be a primer at the top of the order for the abundance of power throughout the FSU lineup.
The Freshman All-American in 2020 showed over the weekend he might be an even more difficult to hitter to pitch against this season.
It took him nine plate appearances to make his first out of the weekend. In the three games, he hit .750/.786/.875. He also drew four walks and was the only Florida State starter who went all three games without registering a single strikeout.
Last season, his walk numbers doubled that of his strikeouts, albeit in a small 17-game sample. However, his performance against UNF suggests similar numbers in 2021 seem feasible.
Martin gave a lot of credit to the pitchers he faces in practice every day for preparing him to be a tough out in games.
“It just shows how elite they are,” Martin said. “They’ll throw any pitch in any count. (Belanger) really stresses that. They’ve just been dominant against us. We’ve seen these power arms all the time and when we get to see some other competition we really hit the ball.”
Martin is an excellent complement to the rest of the FSU lineup that is built to put up gaudy power numbers and be prone to high strikeout rates. He’s going to score a lot of runs at the top of the lineup.
Martin Jr. mentioned after Sunday’s doubleheader that he hurt his shoulder in Saturday’s game, which why he played DH in the two games Sunday after starting at first base Saturday. It doesn’t appear he’ll miss any time, but even if he isn’t healthy enough to play defense, his on-base skills alone make him extremely valuable.
5. Martin Jr. emphasized cutting down on strikeouts and grinding out more at-bats throughout fall ball. Florida State had a miserable showing in that regard on Saturday.
The Seminoles had 13 strikeouts in that one with nine of those coming from their 2-5 hitters.
FSU 2-5 hitters in Saturday’s loss
Florida State got its leadoff man aboard in six of nine innings, but it hit just 4-for-20 (.200) with runners on base and 3-for-14 (.214) with runners in scoring position. Martin Jr. was visibly frustrated about Florida State’s approach at the plate Saturday.
“That stunk. That’s what I’m really frustrated about,” Martin Jr. said. “Is it excitement? Is it adrenaline for the first time in a long time? Okay, maybe so, but I saw more out in front swings and bad decisions on swinging at early breaking balls that really aren’t even strikes and balls off the end of the bat. You know, that’s going to lead to strikeouts and we’ve got to buy in.
I’m getting frustrated,” Martin Jr. continued. “I’ve told them I don’t care what you’ve done. If you’re not going to buy in, I’m going to find guys. We’re going to get better.”
The team clearly got the message the next day. In the two games combined Sunday, Florida State struck out just 13 times as a team and were better situationally.
The Seminoles hit 14-for-42 (.333) with runners on base and 8-for-27 (.296) with runners in scoring position Sunday. They still need to get better at converting on opportunities to drive in runs, but their ability to make more productive outs in the final two games of the series was much improved from Saturday.
On Opening Day, Florida State converted on just 10-of-24 chances to advance runners (.417), compared to 25-of-48 (.520) in the two games Sunday.
Further, the meat of the order’s production in the latter two games compared to what it was Saturday was night and day.
FSU 2-5 hitters in Sunday’s two games
The strikeouts and situational hitting will be something to monitor all season. Last season Florida State struck out in 37% of its at-bats. Through three games, that number is down to 27%.
6. In his first two seasons, Nander De Sedas did not live up to the expectations of being the second-highest rated prospect from the 2018 recruiting class to attend college.
He struggled to consistently make contact as a switch-hitter and frequently made throwing errors despite having all the necessary physical tools to be a solid defender.
In the offseason, Florida State’s coaching staff suggested that he should exclusively hit right-handed, which is his more natural side.
The early returns look promising. De Sedas finished the weekend 4-for-8 with a slash line of .500/.636/.625, along with three walks to just one strikeout. He made consistent hard contact and was much more selective at the plate than he’s been the last two seasons.
“The fact that that side is his natural side, his pitch selection is definitely better,” Martin Jr. said when asked about De Sedas’ only right-handed approach. “He’s still got room for improvement like they all do, but he’s made some good plays.”
Defensively, he made every routine play and showed off his rocket arm several other times. His lone error of the weekend came on a slow roller up the middle where he charged in and to his left and then hurried to make a throw to first, which came up a bit short.
Overall though, it was a nice weekend for him. He just generally seemed to play with a lot more confidence on both sides of the ball.
De Sedas is one of the x-factors for Florida State in 2021. If he can build on this past weekend and begin to play more like the highly touted prospect he was coming out of high school, Florida State will be a much more dangerous team.
7. Mat Nelson drew rave reviews in the offseason from the coaching staff, who feels like 2021 could be a breakout season for the third-year sophomore catcher.
Nelson was impactful on both sides of the ball on opening weekend, slashing an impressive .300/.462/.1000. He hit two home runs, one of which went off the top of the Dick Howser Stadium scoreboard in left field.
Nelson worked hard to slim down and become more explosive in the offseason, and it seems to be paying off both offensively and defensively.
“It’s really a great feeling,” Nelson said after Sunday’s doubleheader. “We saw it a lot in the fall too and I knew nothing was going to change. I knew it was going to translate. Everything had to stay the same with my mindset, with my approach at the plate. Let the ball get deep, try to hit it back off my back hip and just crushing the ball, so just to see everything I’ve done in this offseason really starting to work and everything coming together is a big relief.”
In the fall, he posted an excellent 1.9-second pop time, but he caught only 2-of-11 basestealers in 2020. Over the weekend, he was 1-for-1, nailing Trey Spratling-Williams on his steal attempt.
Nelson also allowed just one passed ball in 23 innings and looked more athletic as a blocker. He said the lost weight is giving his legs more of a break allowing him to catch more innings. Nelson looks like he may be one of Florida State’s most improved players this season.
8. With Elijah Cabell out (hamstring) and Logan Lacey filling his left field spot, true freshman Vince Smith started all three games this weekend at third base.
Smith’s 1-of-10 weekend won’t stand out in the box score, but he hit the ball hard a few times in the first two games of the series, including a robbed home run.
The true freshman finally broke through in the fifth inning of Game 3 when he hammered a full-count fastball off the scoreboard in left field for a three-run bomb. The homer gave Florida State a 4-0 lead and broke the game open after the Seminoles after they went scoreless in the prior three innings.
Smith made an error in each of the three games, but he also flashed a lot of defensive potential, making a couple of diving stops to save an extra-base hit. More consistency on the routine plays should come with more experience.
He’s going to get plenty of opportunities in his first year with the Seminoles.
9. Perhaps, the single biggest weakness for Florida State coming into the season was its defense, and that remains the case after one weekend. The Seminoles made five errors in the three games, compared to just two for UNF.
In 2020, Florida State fielded just .950 in 17 games. The .958 fielding percentage three games into 2021 is slight improvement but still in need of major improvement.
The Seminoles also continue to make too many costly mistakes on the base paths. There were three silly baserunning errors made in the first two games. Martin was picked off at first in the seventh inning of Game 1. Then in the eighth inning, Florida State was down 7-4 with one out and two runners on, and Lacey was picked off on a throwdown by the catcher. Both of those plays killed rallies in a game that was building toward a Florida State comeback.
In the fifth inning of Game 2, FSU had runners on first and third with one out. Lacey lined out to the third baseman, who tagged third to force a double play and end the inning after Robby Martin left the bag prematurely. That particular error did not end up costing the Seminoles, but another potential run was left off the board. Every run will be important in conference games this year, so Florida State has to eliminate these kinds of mental mistakes quickly.
“It’s just game awareness,” Martin Jr. said. “When your runs are no good, you’re playing a different style of baseball…We haven’t gone over it enough apparently.”
The defense and baserunning will be two vital components for the Seminoles all season. If they continue to struggle in these areas, their ceiling will be much lower.
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