The Day After: Two recurring problems have put FSU’s season on the brink
Florida State (31-23) fell to top-seeded Ole Miss Saturday night, 4-3, in the Oxford regional. The Seminoles squandered a one-run lead in the seventh inning after a throwing error allowed two runs to score.
Instead of advancing to Sunday’s final, the Seminoles will now face Southern Miss against Sunday at 2 p.m. in an elimination game. If they win that one, they’ll face the Rebels again at 6 p.m., but not having the extra rest they would have gotten by winning Saturday will make Sunday a lot more difficult.
Two of the same issues that have hurt the Seminoles all season were on full display again Saturday. Now Florida State is one loss away from its season being over.
Poor defense costs the Seminoles a win
Florida State did not have a great night offensively, but the Seminoles had a few clutch at-bats throughout the game that gave them a great chance to win. They got a solid start from Bryce Hubbart and 3.2 terrific innings from Clayton Kwiatkowski and Davis Hare out of the bullpen.
All Florida State needed to do was stay relatively clean defensively and avoid giving away runs. Instead, the Seminoles committed three more errors, which led to three Ole Miss runs.
Let’s start with the most critical error of the game.
In the top of the seventh inning, Ole Miss had two runners in scoring position with two outs for its best hitter, Tim Elko.
Hare forced Elko into a routine grounder to short, but Nander De Sedas airmailed the throw, allowing the tgo-ahead runs to score.
Watching the play unfold live, it looked like De Sedas might have been thrown off by Logan Lacey cutting in front of him to try to make the play. Lacey was initially positioned just a few feet off the third-base line before roaming all the way over towards the middle of the left side to try to field the grounder.
After watching the replay though, De Sedas didn’t seem to make any sudden movements that would suggest Lacey disrupted his timing on the play. By the time he fields the ball cleanly, Lacey is out of his path. Rather than taking an extra second to gather himself and take a quick shuffle towards first before his throw, De Sedas simply jumps out of his fielding crouch and makes a hurried throw to first.
The most important part of this play here is knowing who the runner is. Elko has basically been playing on one leg for the last month after recently tearing his ACL. Because of that, his mobility is very limited and he is slow to get up the line. By the time De Sedas’ throw sails over Tyler Martin’s head, Elko still has not even made it past the patch of infield grass in front of first base.
This play is a situation where De Sedas needs to be aware of who the runner is. If Elko is fully healthy, then maybe the rushed throw here is warranted. However, De Sedas had more than enough time to take another step toward first and make an accurate throw to end the inning.
Worst case, even if Elko somehow beats out the throw, Florida State still would have kept the go-ahead run off the board as long as the ball doesn’t get past Martin.
In vital situations like this one, the mental aspects of the game are magnified. De Sedas had plenty of time on this play to throw out a hobbled runner in Elko. What should have been a routine groundout to end the inning turned into a disastrous outcome for the Seminoles, which has now put their season on the brink.
While the error from De Sedas was Florida State’s most costly of the three, it was not the only critical defensive miscue by the Seminoles’ defense.
In the top of the first inning with one out, Ole Miss had two runners in scoring position with one out. Kevin Graham grounded a 1-1 pitch towards the normally reliable Jackson Greene at second base. Greene took a couple of steps to his left and was in a good position to make the play for the second out, but the ball kicked off his glove into right field.
One run would have scored on the play regardless, but the error allowed the runner on second to come all the way around and score to put Florida State in an early 2-0 hole.
Greene had made only one error all season coming into the weekend, but that was his second in as many days.
Of the six runs Florida State has allowed in two games during the Oxford Regional, five of them have been unearned, thanks to five errors. On Friday, the Seminoles won in spite of their defense, but it finally cost them against one of the top teams in the nation Saturday.
One bright spot on this side of the ball for Florida State was a sequence of key plays by Matheu Nelson to help Kwiatkowski get out of a sixth-inning jam with no damage.
Ole Miss had two runners in scoring position with only one out in the inning, and Kwiatkowski needed a strikeout. He got Ole Miss’s Hayden Dunhurst to chase a 1-2 breaking ball in the dirt for the second out of the inning. Nelson made a great block on the play to prevent the runner on third from coming home.
It was a risky pitch to call with a one-run lead and two runners in scoring position, but Nelson made sure to keep the ball in front of him.
Then came the exclamation point to wrap up the inning. After the strikeout, Kwiatkowski walked the next batter, TJ McCants, on four pitches to bring up Cael Baker. On a 1-0 count, Kwiatkowski threw a breaking ball out of the zone. McCants got a bit too far off the bag with his secondary lead though. Nelson quickly recognized it and threw a bullet from his knees down to Tyler Martin at first to pick off McCants for the final out.
It’s possible McCants assumed Nelson would not take the risk of making an inaccurate throw down to first and allowing the go-ahead runs to score. Or maybe he was trying to draw an errant throw. Regardless, Nelson needed to make a perfect throw in a high-pressure situation to get McCants, and he put it right on the money. Had Florida State held on to win, that play from Nelson might have been the most critical play of the game.
Overreliance on the long ball
Florida State’s lineup has been well defined this season. It is a group that has been prone to a high number of strikeouts, but at its best, it can slug the ball as well as any team in the nation.
After hitting three homers against Southern Miss Friday, the Seminoles hit two more against Ole Miss All-American lefty Doug Nikhazy Saturday, both of which came in the fifth inning.
The first homer came from an improbable contributor in Isaiah Perry. The right-handed hitting Perry got the start in center field over the lefty-handed Nico Baldor with Nikhazy on the mound.
Perry came into the game with only 10 at-bats under his belt for the whole season. Nikhazy tried to sneak an 0-2 fastball up in the zone by him, but Perry got on top of it drilled it down the left-field line to cut the Ole Miss lead in half.
That was Perry’s first-career homer and his first hit since April 27. The homer was also Perry’s first hit of the season against a left-handed pitcher.
Two batters later, Logan Lacey delivered his second homer in as many days to give the Seminoles their first lead of the night.
He also took advantage of a two-strike fastball up in the zone and made the All-American Nikhazy pay for one of his few mistakes on the evening.
Florida State has hit five home runs in two games at the Oxford Regional and all eight of their runs scored have come via the long ball.
Therein lies the problem.
If Florida State is not hitting the ball out of the yard, where is the offense going to come from? In two games this weekend, five of Florida State’s 11 hits have been homers. Three more of those have been doubles.
The Seminoles hit the third-most homers in the ACC during the regular season and ranked fifth in runs scored. However, they ranked only 11th in the league in hits and 10th in on-base percentage.
The biggest reason for that has been the high strikeout totals. Florida State led the ACC with 585 strikeouts (10.8 per game). The next closest team to that total was Clemson, which had 64 fewer.
On Saturday, Ole Miss pitchers struck out Florida State hitters a whopping 19 times, including a career-high 16 by Nikhazy. The Seminoles registered just four hits and one walk.
Mike Martin Jr. has shuffled different hitters in and out of the lineup all year to try to combat Florida State’s strikeout problem, often at the expense of sacrificing some power, but none of his gambits have yielded a long-term fix.
As the Seminoles saw Saturday, that problem may only worsen as they face some of the elite pitchers in college baseball this postseason. Eventually, Florida State is going to have to find a way to score without the long ball. Unlike Friday, the Seminoles’ feast or famine offense was not enough to overcome their defensive issues. They are now one loss away from their season being over.
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