ATHENS — There are higher stakes for both teams than what was on the line Saturday night for Georgia and Florida State. They were meeting in a winner’s-bracket game in a double-elimination NCAA Regional. But you’d never know it from the way they were competing at Foley Field.
Pitchers were fist-pumping and glaring into the opposing dugout. Base coaches were griping at umpires. Balls were bouncing and careening all over the ball park. Early on, at least.
In the end, it was the Seminoles who were swinging the hottest bats. For the first time in a long while, the Bulldogs’ ballyhooed pitching was bested. FSU piled up 15 hits against four pitchers and scored a buzz-killing 12-3 victory before a crowd of 3,046 .
The Bulldogs (44-16) fall to the losers’ bracket, where they will face Florida Atlantic in an elimination game Sunday at noon. The Owls (41-20) eliminated Mercer 10-6 earlier in the day Saturday. Georgia will decide between right-handers Tim Elliott (6-3, 2.70) or Cole Wilcox (3-1, 3.70) to start.
FSU (38-21) will be awaiting the winning team at 6 p.m. Should the Seminoles fall then, the regional championship will be decided Monday at 4 p.m.
That’s the best the Bulldogs can hope for at this point. They’ll be desperate now to avoid last year’s fate, which was to be eliminated on Monday by another ACC team, Duke.
“I think it’s important not to play desperate,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said. “We’ve got a really good ballclub with a lot of experience and we’re going to go out and play our best. The way we play our best is to play loose. When you play loose, you play your best.”
The Bulldogs certainly seemed loose coming into this one. Emerson Hancock, their ace starter coming into the season and most of the year, was on the mound on a week’s rest. And the Bulldogs staked him to a 1-0 lead before he ever toed the rubber. Georgia’s Tucker Maxwell led of the game with a home run on the second pitch out of starter CJ Van Eyk’s hand.
But the Bulldogs’ sophomore right-hander didn’t have his best stuff and was victimized by every conceivable fortunate bounce and well-placed bloop for FSU. He left after four innings trailing 5-2 having allowed nine hits and home run.
Hancock (8-3) benefited from some good fortune himself. Leading 2-1 with one out in the bottom of the third inning, Hancock had a one-out, first-and-third situation facing FSU slugger Robby Martin. Martin drove a Hancock pitch that sent center fielder Tucker Maxwell charging into the wall in right-center field. He pluck away a possible home run from the top of the wall and quickly flung the ball back toward the infield. Hancock scooped it up somewhere around where the second baseman usually is and then fired the ball to first baseman Patrick Sullivan. The throw arrived just ahead of Reese Albert’s slide for an amazing 8-1-3 double play to end the inning.
“I just happened to catch the ball and just happened to keep going,” said Maxwell, who was 3-for-4 for the night and accounted for all three Georgia runs. “I don’t think he thought I could catch; I didn’t know if I could catch it. I just happened to run into the wall and catch it.”
But in keeping with the theme of the night, FSU scored anyway. Mike Salvitore alertly tagged and scored from third base ahead of the third out. It’s a baseball rarity known as a “reverse forced double-play.” The game was tied at 2-2.
It would quickly prove a moot point as the Seminoles’ offense exploded for eight runs over the next two innings. Hancock gave up two doubles and two more singles before finishing out the fourth inning. Then FSU’s left-hand heavy lineup made short work of left-handed relievers Ryan Webb and Adam Goodman. They touched them for 6 hits — including a 3-run homer by .246 hitting Carter Smith — a hit-by-pitch and five runs in the fifth inning.
The bottom of FSU batting order was the culprit against the Bulldogs. After the Seminoles built a 10-2 lead, the 7, 8 and 9 hitters had accounted for nine of the runs batted in.
Florida State’s Tim Becker is quickly developing into one of the best stories of the 2019 postseason. The senior walkon played on the school’s club team before making the varsity squad via tryout this year. After spending most of the season on the bench, he was inserted into the lineup for a slumping left fielder. He was 2-for-2 Saturday with a homer and three RBI. It was his third homer of the year — all of them hit in this regional.
The Bulldogs scratched out two more runs on fielder’s choice by Aaron Schunk, who had two RBI. Otherwise, they couldn’t do much against FSU ace CJ Van Eyk (10-3). The sophomore right-hander scattered nine hits and struck out nine without a walk over eight innings.
The Seminoles are now set up well to accomplish their mission, which was to send out retiring coach Mike Martin with another NCAA Regional Championship before he retires at the completion of his 40th season.
But the veteran coach had words of caution for his young club, which includes four freshman starters.
“I like the way we’re playing. That might be an understatement,” he said. “But nothing’s been decided.”