The impact that Florida State pitching coach Mike Bell had during his first full year on campus is undeniable.
With pitching easily being the team's biggest question mark coming into the year, the Seminoles (50-17) finished the season with a 3.47 ERA, the lowest for FSU since 2003. FSU pitchers totaled 498 strikeouts to just 228 walks, gave up 231 earned runs - the lowest since 2007 - posted a record of 13-3 in one-run ball games, and were 44-2 on the year when leading after six innings.
"It was very enjoyable. It was a good run," Bell said. "They were great, great and I'll say it again great student athletes to coach. You had leaders in the clubhouse, you had older guys teaching younger guys, you had younger guys picking up older guys. It's just a fun group to be around."
Prior to the year, Bell elected to enact a youth movement in the rotation, replacing inconsistent veterans like senior Hunter Scantling and junior Scott Sitz with a pair of freshman in Brandon Leibrandt and Mike Compton.
Leibrandt went 8-3 with a 2.82 ERA starting on Friday nights throughout the season, and Compton went 12-2 with a 2.87 ERA en route to freshman All-American honors. Sophomore Peter Miller was 5-2 with a 3.89 ERA, but made just 10 starts due to arm soreness and was replaced by Sitz (4-3, 3.72 ERA) in the rotation late in the year.
The success of the freshman starters coupled with the emergence of setup man Gage Smith (5-0, 2.89 ERA) and All-American closer Robert Benincasa (4-2, 1.32 ERA with 16 saves) carried FSU throughout much of the year, as the 'Noles hit just .281 as a team (lowest average since 1993).
FSU assistant coach and hitting instructor Mike Martin Jr. said that there were times when the roles were reversed during the season, but that the pitching staff indeed carried the load in 2012.
"If you back and look at the season when we swung it well we didn't pitch all that great. We still won, but there was also many, many times in which that pitching staff picked us up," Martin Jr. said. "We won 3-1, or what have you, I think we won more 1-0 games than we have in a long time. The habits that they're getting into and the buying into the philosophy are really starting to take shape. The new crop of arms that we've got coming in we've got big plans for them as well, and we're excited and we feel like we're getting it on the hill."
Bell said that a big reason for the team's success on the mound was the fact that Scantling and the other veteran pitchers in the bullpen went about things the right way. They didn't pout about not being starters, instead embracing the role of reliever.
"I can't remember in my short coaching career freshman contributing this much. But I think the key to that was the surrounding pieces that they had and the leadership that they had," Bell said. "When Hunter Scantling and Benincasa can look to Compton and Leibrandt and say 'This is the way we're going to do things,' And the young guys knew they had the support of the older guys, it made things a lot easier. Not to take anything away from the young guys and the work they put in, but the key to their success lied within the glue, and that was the older guys, behind them."
With the season over now a number of FSU pitchers will head off to summer leagues to help prepare themselves for bigger roles in 2013. Smith, Miller and freshman Luke Weaver will all pitch in the Cape Cod Summer League. Relievers Kyle Bird Bryant Holtmann, Evan Geist, and Brandon Johnson will all earn extra innings in various summer leagues as well.
Compton and Leibrandt will both return to Tallahassee later in the summer after spending a week or so at home with their families to train at FSU for the remainder of the summer.
"Some guys need to go off and long in some innings. Some guys honestly need to take a break from it and develop a little bit more with the body," Bell said. "Sometimes getting away from it can be just as good as continuing to develop through at-bats and innings."
Bell hopes that his young pitching staff not only using the summer to physically improve, but to also think about the mental lessons learned during a run to the "final four" of the College World Series.
After showing poise and maturity beyond their age, the FSU pitching staff showed its youth in the season finale, a 10-3 loss to eventual national champion Arizona in Omaha. Leibrandt faced just seven batters, recorded just one out, allowed six runs, three earned, and committed a costly throwing error on comebacker that could have been a momentum-shifting double play ball.
Weaver took over for his fellow freshman and allowed three earned runs on a pair of home runs in his three innings of work as FSU never recovered from an early deficit.
"In the middle of our last game I pulled Leibrandt and Weaver aside, because they were next to each other and I told them 'If we can learn form this, don't try to run away from it, and just try to understand what happened in the game and learn from it we're going to be better the next time we come out here,'" Bell said. "That's all we're asking guys to do, continue to progress and continue to get better."