Florida State left-hander Matt Fairel was, in many ways, your typical freshman last season.
He wanted to start, picking up in Tallahassee where he left off in Winter Haven. But like so many young pitchers, especially at an elite college program, Fairel spent his first year as a reliever.
"That's what keeps you working," he said.
Fairel's decision to embrace whatever role he had, even one that can be somewhat humbling and discouraging, proved to be anything but typical. He gained strength and stamina, added a changeup to complement his 90-plus mph fastball and curve and has emerged as the ace of the staff for FSU, which hosts NCAA region play starting today.
Fairel (10-2 with a 3.32 ERA) is scheduled to start Saturday in a game that will either save the season or allow the Seminoles to seize control of the double-elimination tournament.
"Matt has been a guy who's steadily improved throughout this year," coach Mike Martin said. "He's a heck of a pitcher. He's certainly positioned himself at the top of our rotation. And we know for us to achieve our goal, we've got to have a good outing from him."
"That's something you have to relish," Fairel said. "That's something you have to want, to be the guy out there."
He just had to wait a bit longer than he had hoped.
"Every time out, he got better," FSU pitching coach Jamey Shouppe said. "He probably was one of our better pitchers by the end of the year."
Especially in last season's region tournament. Fairel threw 21/3 perfect innings of relief to get a win against Bethune-Cookman in the opener. He then held Mississippi State in check for four innings before wilting and allowing three runs in the eighth of a 9-4 loss that ended FSU's year.
"That gave me confidence and something to build on," said Fairel, who was 2-0 with one save and a 2.94 ERA in 332/3 innings last season.
He sure did that, which surprised no one. He quickly lived up to the reputation he earned at Winter Haven High of someone who went after it. Every day.
"Matt's always been an extremely competitive baseball player and one of the hardest workers we've got on the team," junior catcher Buster Posey said.
The payoff has been a peppier fastball, better command of the strike zone with three pitches instead of two and a better understanding of what it takes to get a batter out multiple times instead of once.
"You can't rely just on adrenaline (and throw); you have to pitch," he said.
The 6-foot-2, 203-pound draft-eligible sophomore has pitched at least five innings in all 14 starts and leads the team in wins, innings (891/3) and strikeouts (86) to earn second-team All-ACC honors.
Typical turnaround, huh?
"Did we think he was going to be our No. 1 guy? Nah. We couldn't say that," Shouppe said. "But he's earned that right to be our go-to-guy, and he's worked hard to hold that position."
"You have to understand your role," Fairel added. "You just have to excel in that, and doing that (last year) put me in position for the coaches to trust me in a new role this year."
Catcher honored: Posey, the nation's leading hitter at .467, was named the national player of the year by Collegiate Baseball. The junior, among those the Rays are considering with the No. 1 overall pick next week, is the fourth Seminole to win the award following J.D. Drew, former Jesuit High star Shane Robinson and former Bloomingdale High standout Tony Thomas.
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.