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Lee Bowen Column: Pre-season Outlook

By: Lee Bowen
Date: January 22, 2003


Lee Bowen Column
The start of a new baseball season always brings a sense of optimism at Florida State. After all, FSU boasts one of the winningest college baseball programs in the country. Never a losing season. The NCAA tournament is considered part of the regular-season schedule, and why not? The players on Mike Martin's 2003 squad weren't born the last time FSU didn't play in the post-season tourney, back in 1977, a quarter of a century ago. Not even Seminole football can beat that post-season run, as Bobby Bowden's consecutive bowl appearance string started in 1982. Consistency is perhaps the most difficult trait to achieve in sports, and FSU baseball is a shining example of long-term success.


Lynch was 13-2 with a 3.59 ERA in 2002

But even at a program where success and failure are measured at astronomically high standards, there's a sense of something special as the '03 'Noles get ready to crank it up on January 31st against VMI in St. Petersburg. It's there during the sometimes-shivering practice sessions at under-construction Dick Howser Stadium. You can feel it when you're around the coaching staff. Not an overt statement, but more like an aura.

This team has a great chance to be good. Very, very, good.

With a strong core of veterans and a number of very talented newcomers, this FSU baseball team should have as good a chance as anyone to erase the one blot on this storied program's record: the lack of a national championship.

Maybe it's the dust and dirt coming from the Howser construction, but this team seems to have a gritty, fighting spirit that will serve it well against another challenging schedule. Maybe there's something to dressing in a leaky clubhouse where space heaters don't quite warm it up enough that creates an artificial feeling of toughness. But I don't think so.

I think this feeling started at the end of last season, when another very, very good Seminole baseball team saw it's season aborted at the hands of an upstart Notre Dame team. I was in the Howser stadium weight room the following day, and like most of the players and coaches, still feeling a little shocked that we weren't packing our bags for Omaha. Instead, players were clearing out their lockers, most getting ready to play summer ball, a few looking forward to starting a professional career, a few more understanding that the best of their organized baseball career is over. Then, Matt Lynch walked in.

"I'm coming back next season," Lynch told coach Chip Baker. His attitude was that of someone who was out to set right a wrong that was just visited on his team. After he left, the small group of us left in the weight room agreed that Matt was still angry, but once the hurt wore off and the San Diego Padres began waving their checkbook around, nobody would blame him if he went ahead and signed.

But Lynch didn't sign. He was back in class last August and ready for his senior season. And he will lead a starting rotation that will vie for the nation's best. Lynch, Marc LaMacchia, and Trent Peterson should give weekend opponents fits. LaMacchia may be college baseball's most underrated pitcher after really coming into his own down the stretch last year. And Peterson has paid his dues and beat out a third-round draft-dodger in Mark Sauls to win the number three spot. Pitching coach Jamey Shouppe says Sauls might be the best prospect he's had since Paul Wilson, but Peterson's experience made him a clear number three in January drills.

Sauls' low-to-mid 90s fastball won't be the only thing coming out of the Seminole bullpen this year. Veteran closer Dan Hodges will be baffling batters with his screwball changeup in the late innings. Daniel Davidson has also impressed Shouppe this January, as have newcomers Eddie Cannon, Rhett James, and Kevin Lynch. That group, plus other talented but green newcomers should be a deep-enough staff to carry it through an even-longer NCAA tournament potential.

Around the rest of the diamond, FSU returns five of eight position starters. There are just two seniors on the non-pitching portion of the roster, but this team may "belong," as Mike Martin likes to say, to a junior. This is the season that catcher Tony Richie wants to put it all together. Players call it the "money" year, because Tony will be eligible for the draft come June. And Richie epitomizes that quiet, tough as nails intensity that seems to come from this team. He reminds me a little bit of Doug Mientkiewicz in that way.

Senior Jerrod Brown returns at first base, coming off a good .327 first year out of Junior College. There's a battle for the starting job at second base, with veteran Kevin Richmond only slightly leading Miami freshman Brandon Manasa with last year's starter, Bryan Zech, still trying to make a late run. Shortstop is settled, of course. Some say had he not broken his foot in Hawaii last January, Steven Drew might have been the first freshman to ever be a finalist for the Golden Spikes award. As is, "Dirt" hit .402 and hit 16 homers in the toughest part of the season.

At third, the other third-rounder to choose garnet and gold over pro ball green is the pre-season surprise, at least from a defensive viewpoint. Freshman Eddy Martinez-Esteve came in as an outfielder and had to beg to try out at a spot that has been a defensive bugaboo for FSU. He beat out the others, and though he's still has a lot to learn at the hot corner, his coaches' and teammates' eyes light up when they talk about his offense. Eddy can swing it.

In the outfield, veteran Tony McQuade hopes he has finally beat a nagging muscle injury that sidelined him more than once last year. He "only" hit .376 playing hurt a lot of the time. McQuade returns to left field as the only veteran out in the pasture. Junior College transfer Matt Sauls (Mark's brother) has looked good both offensively and defensively and should start in center, with another JUCO guy, Blake Balkcom taking over in right. Last fall I was told Balkcom may have the best arm in right since Chris Brock was gunning out runners at the plate for the 'Noles.

The area that's the biggest worry for this team is its depth. Certainly, there are qualified guys making up the bench bunch, including veterans like senior Chris Hart and junior Zech in the infield. Hart can also play outfield, and fifth-year player Chris Whidden is listed as a backup outfielder and is really enjoying working out with both the pitchers and position players this year. Pitcher Kevin Lynch spent a few innings in the outfield and you may see him out there again from time to time. Another returnee, Aaron Cheesman, brings good defensive skills to backup Richie behind the plate. Newcomers who will be looking for playing time when the 'Noles are up big in the late innings or if a starter goes down sick or hurt include first baseman Danny Wardell, and Manasa, who obviously is nearly good enough to start at second base. Still, you can't say FSU has starting talent two-deep at every position (and with only 11.7 scholarships to spread around, neither can most teams). Some of the new guys will develop into it in the weeks and seasons to come. Others have made important contributions in the past and will likely get chances to do so this year.

With this team, FSU will attack another difficult schedule, highlighted by the toughest conference in the nation. According to last year's Ratings Percentage Index, the ACC was the nation's best by quite a distance over the second-best SEC. Wake Forest and Georgia Tech join FSU in the pre-season top 10, and that trip to Atlanta in early May is looking like a gem of a series. The early season schedule is a little thin this year, with the trip to Stanford next month being the highlight and no "big name" non-Florida non-conference team coming to Howser this year. The pollsters indicate they expect Miami to be somewhat down this year and Florida to be way down. Sorry, I'm having problems believing that the Gators didn't merit a spot somewhere in Baseball America's pre-season top 50. Expect them to come to Tallahassee in March with a chip on their shoulder. Miami is still Miami, and those six games every year are the highlight of the regular season. And I think the Seminoles are also circling the weekend of March 28, looking for a little revenge when North Carolina comes to Tallahassee.

When folks that recognize me stop and ask me about FSU baseball, the inevitable question always involves my prediction of a College World Series trip at least and a National Championship at best. My response is almost always that they should be good enough to make a run at it, at least. Given FSU's history, it's an easy answer. But if the 'Noles grab that first-ever championship ring at the end of this season, I just might be less surprised than I would have been in some other years.

One quick note about this year's radio broadcasts: In case you missed it on the message boards, the broadcasts will be back on the Internet this year, every game. I can't thank the folks at Clear Channel Tallahassee (your flagship radio station WFLA 1270 AM) and at Seminole Athletics enough for overcoming the hurdles to beat the problems that caused the plug to be pulled last year. I'm sure Dot Com will have the links to the games posted here on Warchant, and of course they'll be available at FSU's official site, Seminoles.com, too.

Go 'Noles!


Lee Bowen is the voice of Seminole baseball. You can listen to Lee do the play-by-play for all Seminole baseball games on WFLA - NewsRadio 1270 - Tallahassee. All games are available via the Internet.
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