January 31, 2013

Baseball: Compton injury shuffles FSU rotation

Last season's College World Series run was fueled by Florida State's pitching and defense. This season FSU will have to replace its 1-4 hitters in the lineup, so it likely again will rely on its pitching prowess.

The Seminoles have some big holes to replace on its pitching staff as well. Gone is All-American closer Robert Benincasa (4-2, 1.32 ERA and 16 saves), as well as a slew of veteran relievers.

FSU Associate Head coach Mike Bell thinks this staff can have similar results as last season (team ERA of 3.47), once he and the other coaches get each guys to accept their roles, whatever that role may be. The season opens on February 15 against Rhode Island.

"It's about guys accepting their jobs, doing their roles and picking up bits and pieces of the game," Bell said. "Getting a quality start, handing it over to a guy for an inning or two, maybe a situational with a righty or lefty in the seventh and eighth, then having someone shut the door."

Bell's job of determining roles for his pitchers was made more complicated last week with the news that sophomore starter Mike Compton (12-2, 2.87 ERA) would have to be shut down indefinitely with a right elbow sprain.

Compton will be re-evaluated at the end of the week, but it's possible the sinkerballer won't be ready for opening day after a tremendous freshman season. Compton's absence means that three other pitchers on the staff will have their roles adjusted.

"I'm anxious to see how the guys that are so-called behind right now move up," head coach Mike Martin said. "It's a great opportunity for them. We're hurting that Michael is not available, but we're going to do what's best for him, and our doctors and trainers will tell us when he's ready. When he is, I assure you he's not going to have to earn his way back in there."

Senior right-hander Scott Sitz (4-3, 3.72 ERA) will go from the likely Sunday starter's role into Compton's slot on Saturday. Sitz is hoping to carry the momentum of his CWS start against UCLA last year (6.2 IP, 5H, 1 ER and 8K) into his senior year.

Sophomore Luke Weaver (1-0, 5.93 ERA) and junior Peter Miller (5-3, 3.89 ERA) will battle it out for the Sunday slot, with the other likely relegated to a mid-week starter's role.

"The mindset is the same as it was before," Sitz said. "We figured it'd be Leibrandt and Compton, and after that we'd all just be fighting for that last spot and weekday spot. Now if he isn't able to go we're fighting to go for the Saturday spot, go for the Sunday spot also. It's still a battle."

Both Weaver and Miller spent their summer in the Cape Cod League to get extra innings. Neither guy pitched more than 41.2 innings for Florida State last season. Miller said he worked on "everything" over the summer, while Weaver focused on improving his slider.

"That's always been the iffy pitch for me," Weaver said. "Just pounding the zone more and getting ahead of hitters. Coming into this fall I stopped going over in my windup in my head. It's really helped me focus on throwing more strikes and getting ahead of hitters. I've seen a big drastic improvement between that and my overall slider."

Weaver and Miller are both in contention to be the Seminoles' closer as well according to Martin. The two are in the mix with freshman Jameis Winston, and junior RHP Robby Coles, a Chipola Junior College transfer.

Once again though, how that race pans out will be determined by the severity of Compton's injury.

"Until we know exactly what's going on with Michael, we may not have a closer on opening day," Martin said. "We may just let it plays itself out."

In addition to replacing Benincasa, Bell must replace a trio of senior relievers in the bullpen as well. Last season Hunter Scantling (5-1, 3.81 ERA), Brain Busch (0-1, 5.04 ERA) and Mack Waugh (3-2, 2.33 ERA) combined for 101.2 innings and 77 appearances.

Bell knows that finding guys to help bridge the gap from the starters to set-up man Gage Smith (5-0, 2.89 ERA and 3 saves) could be the key to the season. He'll be looking at freshman RHP Kenny Burkhead, sophomore LHP Bryant Holtmann (2-0, 3.20 ERA) and sophomore LHP Kyle Bird (0-1, 7.15 ERA) among others to replace those roles.

"Those were invaluable innings," Bell said. "It's not taking away from what Leibrandt, Compton and our starters did on the front-end of the game, but those middle inning in a key situation with a powerful defense behind it, and that was probably one of the better defenses in the country, is what allowed us to win 50 ball games."

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