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Armstrong, Hults deliver unexpectedly heroic performances to keep FSU alive

Andrew Armstrong hadn't pitched in 24 days, not since the ACC Tournament.
Andrew Armstrong hadn't pitched in 24 days, not since the ACC Tournament. (USA Today Sports)

The path out of the College World Series loser's bracket is quite daunting.

After losing to Tennessee on Friday night, Florida State was tasked with winning four straight elimination games in a span of five days to keep its season alive.

Sunday's game against Virginia was relatively easy to manage with a strong start from Carson Dorsey and a solid relief appearance from Brennen Oxford.

But Tuesday's matchup vs. North Carolina proved to be a greater challenge in terms of how to approach it. Injuries have left the Seminoles with only two true starters and while they have a handful of bullpen arms they have relied on this postseason, you can't use the same bunch of guys each day in such a compressed timeline.

Two guys who haven't been a huge part of that postseason plan were Andrew Armstrong and Connor Hults.

Hults made four appearances in FSU's first seven NCAA Tournament games, but wasn't very effective, allowing a combined three runs on eight hits over 4.1 NCAAT innings.

Armstrong hadn't made any appearances in the NCAA Tournament, last appearing as the starting pitcher in FSU's ACC Semifinal win over Wake Forest and struggling for much of the back half of FSU's 2024 season.

But in the type of moment that can only really happen in postseason college baseball, these two pitchers combined to limit UNC's offense to three earned runs while recording 26 of the 27 outs Tuesday that kept FSU's season alive with a 9-5 win over the Tar Heels.

"Those guys have been picking up for me all year," Armstrong said after the win. "I had a really rough second half of the year, I've struggled. And it seems like every time someone comes out of the pen and really picks up for me or the offense scores eight, nine, 10 runs like they did today. It felt really good to step up and get us through the first half of that game, get us going."

Over his last eight appearances before Tuesday, Armstrong had allowed 20 earned runs over 13.2 innings for a 13.60 ERA. He hadn't pitched in 24 days.

But desperate times called for desperate measures and that's where FSU found itself when it tasked the senior lefty with starting vs. UNC with the team's season on the line.

Armstrong worked a 1-2-3 inning with relative ease and then when he was warming up before the second inning, he felt something in his side start to hurt. He had tweaked the same oblique that sidelined him last fall into the preseason.

All of a sudden, his low-90s fastballs were sitting in the mid 80s, prompting a visit from head coach Link Jarrett.

"He asked me if I think I could pitch through it and I said, 'Yes," Armstrong recalled.

Added Jarrett, "When you tell me you're fine and I'm looking at the scoreboard and it says 83 and your changeup is normally 81, you can tell me that but I can tell what's going on."

After a few more warmup pitches to prove he could continue, Armstrong got a double play to work around a leadoff single, throwing a scoreless second inning. Dealing with the pain he was pitching through, Armstrong was audibly grunting as he delivered pitches that, while not as fast as normal for him, were effective at inducing quite a bit of weak contact.

"I don't normally grunt too much. That was probably my pain..." Armstrong said. "Everybody is going through something this time of year. Everybody that goes out there, pitchers, hitters, something is bugging them. Nobody is feeling 100%. Those guys have been picking up for me all year when I've been struggling so it felt good to be able to do that for them today."

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In the third, he allowed a pair of two-out doubles to surrender a run, but got through the inning and also worked a 1-2-3 fourth. He was finally chased in the fifth inning after allowing a pair of one-out baserunners.

Those runners left behind came around to score, but he still managed to match his season high with 4.1 innings and allowed just three runs on five hits.

"I think that's an outing we'll talk about for a long time," FSU pitching coach Micah Posey said after the win. "North Carolina does a really good job with elevated pitches, they do a good job middle-third, top-third. That was the game plan, 'Hey, let's try to be down today and with the wind (blowing in), let's see what that does. You still have to execute and he executed that flawlessly. He strained the side again, but the changeup after that, we felt like it was more in play. As the young kids would say, we spammed the changeup. He gave us 13 outs we needed."

That scouting report, by the way, was slid under Jarrett's hotel room door by Posey around 2 a.m. Tuesday morning.

"He worked on it that hard," Jarrett said.

When Conner Whittaker, who has been one of FSU's reliable bullpen arms this postseason, didn't have his best stuff Tuesday, FSU was forced to turn to Hults.

Like Brennen Oxford on Sunday, the junior lefty probably valued the chance at redemption that his relief appearance vs. UNC provided after he allowed the game-winning double Friday to Tennessee's Dylan Dreiling in the CWS opener.

Dreiling said after that game that they had scouted Hults as a heavy curveball pitcher, throwing nine pitches that were all curveballs in his last outing. While Hults has been a nice piece in the bullpen down the stretch of the season, the book was certainly out on him.

Until Hults and Posey flipped that script on Tuesday.

"The thing I was proud of him about today was the fastballs. It was the most he had used it all season," Posey said. "He was able to get them off balance with the fastball. Probably 10 times more fastball than he had thrown all season. So for him to do that on this stage, usually you do that in development or midweeks. For him to do that in Omaha was pretty special."

Hults entered the game with two outs in the fifth inning, FSU leading 7-5 and the go-ahead run at the plate. He got a groundout to second to escape the threat.

"Hultsy to come in and finish the fifth and just roll with it, just a phenomenal testament to his toughness and resolve to deliver," Jarrett said.

From there, Hults really buckled in. He worked a 1-2-3 sixth and faced the minimum again in the seventh with a pickoff to erase a leadoff single.

He worked around a one-out double in the eighth to strand the runner at third and, according to Jarrett, there was never a doubt in Hults' mind that he wanted the ball for the ninth as well.

"He told me, we were going to the ninth, he comes in the dugout after that, 'Don't even think about (a pitching change),'" Jarrett recalled. "There were some other words mixed in there."

Hults issued a leadoff walk in the ninth, but didn't ever let the runner get into scoring position, retiring the next three batters to preserve the victory. He threw a season-high 4.1 innings of relief work, allowing just two hits to a potent UNC offense.

"I'm so happy for him. He really answered it," Jarrett said of Hults. "Both of these left-handers really did a nice job."

With potentially two games against Tennessee in as many days starting Wednesday at 3 p.m. and FSU needing to win them both, having the pitching staff in as good of shape as possible is essential.

While it may not guarantee a happy ending for the Seminoles, that's just what Armstrong and Hults did Tuesday, delivering performances that will be remembered long past the end of their FSU careers.

"They saved the bullpen. We feel like there's still some good pieces down there that we can use. For him to eat eight innings, that keeps our pitching in a good spot,” Posey said. “We're going to need some guys to step up and want the ball and probably ask a lot more of this staff than what you want to."

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