TALLAHASSEE — Florida State’s starting pitchers were forced into difficult situations last season.
Drew Carlton became the ace at midseason with the injury to Mike Compton. Tyler Holton and Cole Sands were freshmen but asked to start and deliver in postseason games. That experience early in their careers could pay off in 2017.
Carlton, a former George Jenkins standout, will start for the Seminoles when they open the season Friday against Virginia Commonwealth at 4 p.m. at Dick Howser Stadium. Sands will follow on Saturday, with Holton on Sunday.
“I feel like I've taken on the leadership role for the staff,” said Carlton, a junior right-hander. “I try to set the pace, the attitude for the weekend. Just help the new guys and the returners with what it's like for a weekend series.”
The Seminoles will return their weekend rotation for the first time in recent memory, a luxury that not many teams enjoy in college baseball. And it’s one reason for optimism as FSU attempts to return to the College World Series for the first time since 2012.
The trio combined to make 44 starts in 2016, and they seemed to pitch at their best in April, May and June.
“I like the rotation, especially after seeing Holton throw fairly well late in the year,” Baseball America writer John Manuel said. “I do think other coaches respect that staff, the consistency of Carlton, his competitiveness and experience.”
Carlton (8-3, 3.94 ERA) tossed a two-hit shutout of Florida in Game 1 of the Super Regional last June. It was a dominating performance where Carlton had five strikeouts, allowed no walks and mixed his pitches while working both sides of the plate in baffling the Gators. In May and June, Carlton was 4-1.
He has worked on a cut fastball the past few months, which gives him a fourth pitch in addition to a fastball, slider and change-up.
“It’s my favorite pitch to throw now,” Carlton said of the cutter. “Really effective for me.”
Carlton has been a workhorse, leading FSU in innings (93.2) last year. And the addition of a cutter will only continue to keep hitters guessing as Carlton caught 31 batters looking on strike three in 2016. Pitching coach Mike Bell has enjoyed seeing Carlton's progress through the years.
“We love Drew for who he is,” Bell said. “He’s going to attack you. He’s going to throw pitches for strikes. He’s going to pitch with confidence and pitch with poise. He’s going to continue to master his game and he’s continued to work hard. It’s been fun to watch.”
Sands (6-7, 4.13 ERA) had 50 strikeouts in 69.2 innings. The right-hander allowed two or fewer earned runs in 13 starts, including a win in the ACC Tournament (Georgia Tech) and the regional (South Alabama).
He gave quality innings even though Sands didn’t pitch deep into games. Sands’ longest starts were a pair of six-inning outings in May.
“Last year, we had to use the bullpen a good bit,” Sands said. “Hopefully that will even out now.”
Holton (3-4, 2.79 ERA) started just 10 games but led the staff with 84 strikeouts in 67.2 innings. While he gave up 33 walks, opponents hit just .234 against the left-hander.
His best four games came at the end of the year. Holton had back-to-back no-decisions against Miami, pitched 5.2 innings in a regional win over Southern Miss and gave up just one earned run with six strikeouts and a walk in six innings in a Super Regional loss at Florida.
Now Holton is focusing completely on pitching after also playing in the outfield last season.
“I think it will help him from a physical standpoint,” Bell said. “Maybe someone that doesn’t get worn down over the course of a year trying to do too much.”
FSU will need quality starts as the Seminoles play five weekend series against ACC teams ranked in Baseball America’s preseason top 25. The experience of 2016, especially that from pitching in a pressure-packed postseason, should only help a Seminoles weekend rotation that is one of the ACC’s best.
“It’s a great feeling when you have experience,” FSU coach Mike Martin said.