Mississippi State handcuffs Seminoles at the plate, ends their tourney run

Originally Published: June 4, 2007
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State won 49 games and, for much of this season, was considered one of the two best college baseball teams in the country, along with Vanderbilt.

Mike Martin
AP Photo/Phil CoaleMike Martin's teams are frequent visitors of Omaha -- but he has yet to bring home a national championship.
But by the end of May and beginning of June, the Seminoles weren't even the best team in the ACC.

And Florida State certainly wasn't the best team in the NCAA Tournament regional it hosted this weekend at Dick Howser Stadium.

Second-seeded Mississippi State upset the top-seeded Seminoles on Sunday for the second time in as many nights, handing FSU a 9-4 loss in front of a crowd of 3,714. It is the second season in a row the Seminoles failed to advance to a super regional, after they accomplished that feat the previous eight seasons in a row.

"It's always difficult," FSU coach Mike Martin said. "It never gets easy. Like I told them, it was a good year. You look back and can't take anything away from what they accomplished. Certainly, there's an empty feeling because we did not achieve the goal that we set for our team."

The goal was to return to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where the Seminoles haven't been since 2000.

A month ago, this FSU team looked like a squad that might even win Martin his first national championship. Martin has won nearly 1,500 games in 27 seasons at the school and guided it to the College World Series 12 times. In Omaha, though, his teams have come up short.

But this Florida State team was loaded. Second baseman Tony Thomas Jr. was named ACC Player of the Year, after leading the league in batting average, hits, runs, doubles, triples and nearly everything else. Senior right-handed pitcher Bryan Henry was the ACC Pitcher of the Year, after winning his first 14 decisions with a 2.50 ERA.

The Seminoles were talented from top to bottom, with seven players hitting better than .350 and three starting pitchers winning at least 10 games each.

And the Seminoles were playing at home. FSU had won its previous eight NCAA Tournament regionals in Tallahassee and had posted a 70-21 record while playing in home regionals, winning 20 of its previous 23 games in that format.

Tony Thomas jr
AP Photo/Phil CoaleTony Thomas Jr. is just one of many talented players on Florida State's roster.
"That's the toughest thing sometimes -- when you're playing at home and you're supposed to win," Mississippi State coach Ron Polk said. "That's a lot of pressure when you've got a good team coming in."

There were signs of trouble the last two weeks. Florida State lost two of three games in the ACC tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., last weekend. The Seminoles mustered only eight hits in a 9-3 loss to Miami, then had six hits in a 5-1 loss to Clemson.

The cold hitting continued at home over the weekend, as Florida State needed a five-run seventh inning Friday night to beat No. 4 seed Bethune-Cookman 6-2 in the first round. Mississippi State's Justin Pigott and Aaron Weatherford handcuffed the Seminoles again Saturday night, combining for a three-hit shutout in a 3-0 win.

The Seminoles bounced back Sunday afternoon with a 17-1 win against overmatched Stetson, which sent six pitchers to the mound during the blood bath. But even as Florida State scored 11 times in the seventh inning to blow that game open, you were left wondering whether the Seminoles would have anything left for the Bulldogs later in the night.

"It really just didn't go our way," said FSU right fielder Jack Rye, who had two of FSU's six hits -- a pair of home runs -- in the elimination game. "That's baseball for you. Everything goes your way one game, and then nothing goes your way in the next."

Florida State went ahead 2-0 in the first inning on Rye's two-run homer, but the Bulldogs answered with three runs in the bottom of the inning. Second baseman Brandon Turner, a freshman who led the SEC in hitting this season, hit a two-run homer, and first baseman Brian LaNinfa added a solo shot off starter Danny Rosen for a 3-2 lead.

Rosen lasted only 2 2/3 innings, allowing six runs on six hits. The Bulldogs scored three more times off reliever Matt Fairel, including two runs in the eighth that put the game out of reach.

The hottest hitting team in the country for 3 1/2 months mustered only two hits after the fourth inning. Florida State's team batting average fell from .360 to .350 in the final seven games of the season. The .350 average still set FSU and ACC team records.

"The last two games we played against Mississippi State, they pitched really well," FSU first baseman Brandon Reichert said. "I thought we hit the ball very well as a whole. We made good contact, but they made some plays. The numbers might not have been there, but we put the bat on the ball as well as we did all season. It's just nothing fell."

Except a team that was talented enough to be celebrating on the mound in Omaha three weeks from now.

"It's heartbreaking to know that everything you worked hard for, to come a few hits short of that, it's just very heartbreaking," Thomas said.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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