May 19, 2011
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - There is always something at stake when the most competitive rivalry in Atlantic Coast Conference baseball rolls around and this year is no exception.
Florida State and Clemson rank 1-2 in all-time victories among ACC teams and boast the top two winning percentages in league play. Since the `Noles joined the league in 1992, the two teams have combined for eight ACC championships and since the 2006 advent of divisional play, no other program has been able to crack their stranglehold on the Atlantic Division.
They won't this year either as Mike Martin's club takes a three-game lead in the division into the final weekend of the regular season, needing just one victory to lock down their fourth Atlantic title in six years. If it seems like the `Noles have been in this position before, you're right.
"It's exactly like it was last year," said Martin. "It's just a change of venue."
Martin and the veteran Seminoles (39-13, 18-9 ACC), who are ranked as high as No. 4 in the national polls and carry a No. 4 NCAA RPI rating into the series, hope it turns out differently. Swept a year ago at Kingsmore Stadium, FSU not only lost a division title - though it did win the ACC Tournament - but the chance to host an NCAA Regional at home.
The series - the `Noles and Tigers meet Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. - also provides FSU an opportunity to extend its streak of 40-win seasons to 34 consecutive years.
Though a single win would deliver the defending ACC champions a No. 2 seed for next week's conference tournament in Durham, N.C. - and victory No. 40 - winning the series would likely lock up a top-eight national seed as well. That would clear the path for the `Noles to play their way back to the College World Series from the comfy confines of Dick Howser Stadium.
Beating the surging Tigers (37-16, 15-12), will be no easy feat. Since being swept at North Carolina (April 1-3), Clemson has won 23 of 27 games, climbing as high as No. 15 in this week's polls and sitting at No. 9 in the NCAA RPI. Like the `Noles, the Tigers also have aspirations of at least hosting a regional.
"It's a great series. It's a lot, so to speak, at stake," Martin said. "... I think everybody that looked at the schedule felt like there was a good chance of something being at stake when this series rolled around. Clemson started off slowly and showed what they're all about by bouncing back. It's just a clear indication that they're one of the top teams in the country."
Junior left-hander Sean Gilmartin (9-1, 1.25) gets the starting nod on the mound for the `Noles in Thursday's series opener, set for a 6 p.m. first pitch. One of the national leaders in ERA, strikeouts and batting average against, Gilmartin seems to be the man best-suited to handle a left-handed heavy Clemson lineup that is hitting at an ACC-leading .321 pace.
Gilmartin, however, isn't fixating on getting the one win that will lead to an Atlantic Division pennant.
"We want to win the whole series," Gilmartin said. "We want to take two or three games out of the series. We're going into this weekend seeing that it's a three game series. Who cares if we only have to win one?"
Senior catcher Rafael Lopez said he thought the Seminoles may have fallen victim to the "win one" mentality last season at Clemson. The `Noles let the first one slip away 9-8 when the Tigers scored three in the bottom of the eight to prevail, which was followed by 8-4 and 8-3 setbacks in the final two games.
"We can't change our approach," said Lopez, whose play at the plate and behind it has been instrumental in leading the Seminoles to five consecutive weekend series victories. "I think that happened last year."
FSU has shown its own "take care of business" attitude on the diamond since dropping the final two games to North Carolina at Howser (April 9-10). Since then the Seminoles have won 16 of 20, including an 8-3 record against Miami, Jacksonville, UCF, Stetson and NC State, all of whom boast solid NCAA RPI rankings.
Continuing that trend against the Tigers would be huge in the eyes of the NCAA Baseball Committee, regardless of what unfolds in the ACC Tournament.
"I think if we start looking past anything that we're going to get ourselves in trouble," Martin said. "We've got to play solid baseball every inning. We know how difficult it is to beat these guys. They handled us last year, so we've got to go out and play better than we did last year."