OMAHA, Neb. — When the LSU baseball team faces Florida State tonight, it’ll be matching up against a pitcher who doesn’t give up many hits and an offense that doesn’t leave anything to chance.
Florida State’s offensive scorebook reads like a lazy infielder’s dream. Of the eight teams in the 2017 College World Series, Florida State has the most walks, the most home runs and the second-most strikeouts. Florida State’s 380 walks aren’t just the most of any team in the tournament, they led the nation.
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Add in Florida State’s 88 hit-by-pitches, third-most among College World Series teams, and the Seminoles have posted an absurd 1,043 plate appearances in which the baseball never entered the field of play. That’s roughly 39 percent of the Seminoles’ plate appearances in 66 games this season.
In other words, almost 40 percent of Florida State’s at-bats end with the defense standing idly as the ball either sits in the catcher’s mitt or sails over their heads.
To LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri, Florida State’s national lead in walks presents the most direct challenge to LSU’s chances Saturday. In particular, the way Florida State extends at-bats could trap starting pitcher Alex Lange into throwing more pitches than he’s comfortable with.
“I just want to see Alex challenge the hitters more, not nibble on the corners but throw the ball over the white,” Mainieri said. “They’re not going to swing if you don’t throw strikes. They’ll try to drive our pitchers’ pitch counts up so that they can get into the bullpen. Hopefully Alex will challenge them more.”
It might sound counterintuitive for a team to be equally talented at walking as it is at striking out. But that’s been Florida State’s primary method of success. If a pitch is in the zone, they’re going to swing. That’s what leads to home runs. But if a pitch is off the plate, they’re going to take it. No need to chase when a walk gets you on base.
Within 48 hours of being paired against Florida State, Lange knew what he was getting into.
“They’re going to be patient,” the LSU ace said Tuesday. “We have to attack them with fastballs and really command the heater well to get them off the breaking stuff. We’re just going to go after them and trust the defense behind me.”
Lange’s strategy, in effect, is to take Florida State out of its comfort zone by making the Seminoles put the ball in play. TD Ameritrade Park is notoriously spacious, deadening power strokes and favoring speedy, rangy defenders. That means some balls in play probably are going to find the outfield alleys for doubles and triples. But some will be caught by Zach Watson, Antoine Duplantis and Greg Deichmann.
And in order to deploy this strategy, Mainieri said Lange needs to take special care to throw first-pitch strikes.
“First pitch is a huge at-bat,” Mainieri said. “We’ve got to get first-pitch strikes. Florida State is a home run-hitting team. They’re big, strong guys. And I don’t know how that will play in this ballpark. But I think the important thing is that we just don’t give them stuff. If we can limit our walks and hit batters and make the plays in the field, I think it obviously enhances our chances of winning.”
As for the pitcher…
Florida State will start Tyler Holton against the LSU baseball team Saturday. A tricky left-hander who’s seen a lot of success in 2017, Holton is 10-2 with a 2.25 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 112 innings pitched.
The most astounding measure of Holton’s success is the way he’s prevented hits. Opponents are batting just .171 against Holton this season. Only five pitchers in the country have a lower mark. Because of his delivery and command, Mainieri compares Holton to two-time Cy Young winner and MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine, another left-hander with an over-the-top motion who excelled with command.
One of the trademarks of Holton’s game is his changeup. Holton mixes in that pitch among his fastballs, disguising the offspeed and, as LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson explained, adding the illusion of extra velocity to his fastball.
“It looks like a fastball,” Robertson said. “Once you see it and know the changeup is there and he can control it and it’s good, it speeds the fastball up. Even if he’s not a big velo guy, the fastball is going to be a lot better because of that changeup.”
Mainieri knows this, too. But having only watched Holton on television, he’s skeptical that Holton isn’t already a big velo guy.
“He’s got more strikeouts than innings pitched,” Mainieri said. “So [he’s] probably more than just one of those finesse guys. He’s probably got a little bit more sneaky velo than probably you can tell watching on television. But I hear he’s a very tough competitor and we’re going to have to do the job.”