Perhaps we should have given this team more credit.
FSU coach Mike Martin and second baseman Devon Travis embrace after the Seminoles beat Stanford Sunday night.
Maybe the head coach and the program that he has spent his adult life building deserved the benefit of the doubt, rather than the persistent questions and doubts that swirled around Dick Howser Stadium in the weeks and months leading up to the 2012 Florida State baseball season.
Questions about a brand new pitching coach and a weekend rotation that lost its Friday night starter to the first round of the MLB draft and aimed to replace him with two true freshmen
And doubts about a lineup that, outside of a few proven commodities, was short on experience and seemed to lack much in the way of firepower.
So perhaps it wasn't totally unfair for Florida State to begin the season ranked at No. 20 – a long way down from the types of perches this program is used to. But the Seminoles took notice of it then. And they hadn't forgotten about it come Sunday night, when the last out was recorded in their 18-7 win over Stanford that clinched FSU's 21st College World Series appearance and third in five years.
“I hate to play the underdog card when you just scored 35 runs in a Super Regional, but going into the season we were ranked 20th in the country,” center fielder James Ramsey said. “And a lot of guys were really upset our first day of Spring practice. And I was like, 'Guys, we've got to peak in June.'”
A 5-0 postseason record that goes along with a series of sparkling performances suggest that maybe the Seminoles are putting it all together at the right time. But the journey that brought them to this point wasn't so bad, either.
For starters, pitching coach Mike Bell turned out to be a first-year revelation, turning two freshmen – Brandon Leibrandt and Mike Compton – into two of the Atlantic Coast Conference's top starters and molding Robert Benincasa, a veteran who spent two years struggling to find where he belonged among FSU's pitching staff, into a lights out closer.
And the offense got going from some expected places – Ramsey and Jayce Boyd finished as the conference's Nos. 1 and 2 hitters (separated by just one percentage point) – and from some surprises, like Sherman Johnson and Stephen McGee proving that walks really can be just as valuable as hits.
Even after their rapid ascent from No. 20 to the top of the polls, where they spent seven weeks, the doubts continued and perhaps spilled over during an 0-3 flameout in the ACC tournament.
That skid, which took place just a little over two weeks ago, feels like a long time ago now. Like Ramsey said, the idea is to peak in June – not the last week in May.
“We thought we were going to go back (to Omaha), and that was our goal,” said Sherman Johnson, whose second-inning home run helped down Stanford Sunday night. “And it's been our goal, set from day one. It didn't really matter what other people were saying about us.”
There's a lot of credit to go around. To Bell, who turned the pitching staff from a liability into a strength. To Ramsey, who, months before the season began, embraced his role as the leader of this team and held up the example he set each day. And to the infield quartet of Johnson, Justin Gonzalez, Devon Travis and Jayce Boyd, which proved its value time and again this season, most recently with three remarkable, rally-killing double-plays they turned on Stanford Sunday night.
And, of course, there's the credit that's due Mike Martin, the man who a year ago acknowledged that his career was in its twilight. It was Martin who made the difficult decision to turn the pitching staff over to Bell. And to trust two first-year pitchers at the expense of several more experienced players.
And it was Martin who helped this team to believe what it could achieve, to turn any perceived slights into motivation. And to pay close attention to the small details that are often the difference between a spot in Omaha and a flameout in the Super Regionals.
“About every single day, when we do ground balls – and we do a lot of them, 'Eleven' likes to say 'this ground ball takes us back,'” Travis said.
They're going back. Thanks to ground balls and pitching, senior leadership and timely hitting. Those and a host of other factors that have practically become traditions themselves at FSU combined to make this a season to remember.
And perhaps – regardless of what happens in Omaha – we shouldn't be too surprised that things turned out the way they did.