Conner Whittaker held a 2.48 ERA over 36.1 innings as a freshman at FSU. He thanks his high school coaches for making his transition to college ball a smooth one.
The size of the crowd was much different.
That was the first thing Conner Whittaker noticed.
Whittaker was accustomed to playing baseball at Sarasota High's field — a good facility, but not one that compares to Florida State's Dick Howser Stadium, which holds 6,700 fans and has seen nearly 5 million fans pass through its gates since it opened in 1983. When Whittaker, an FSU freshman, took the Dick Howser mound for the first time on Feb. 19 against James Madison in the Seminole's second game of the year, there were 5,048 people watching his every pitch.
"That was a crazy experience," Whittaker said. "I got sent to the bullpen and my adrenaline was going, my heart rate was up. But once I got out to the mound I was super calm and cool. During a game you don't think about that stuff again until it's over."
Whittaker was not affected by the crowd's rumble. He did what he does best: throw strikes, and throw them hard. Whittaker pitched one inning that day, allowing no runs on one hit with one strikeout in the team's 13-2 win. As big as the moment was, it was a strong start to his season and college career. Whittaker continued to be effective throughout the season. Over 36 1/3 innings, all out of the bullpen, Whittaker finished with a 2.48 ERA, striking out 34 and walking 13.
"My changeup was working for me all year long," Whittaker said. "It was my most effective pitch and helped the team out (of tough situations). I threw a pretty good changeup in high school but back then I was also trying more pitches. You can get away with more in high school. Here in the bullpen, when you're in a close game in the late innings, you're only throwing your dominant stuff. I had worked on the changeup in the fall and it kept getting better and better, so I kept using it."
Whittaker's transition to college baseball was made easier by his high school experience. Whittaker played for the Sailors under coach Clyde Metcalf, who announced his retirement in May after 40 years. Whittaker credited Metcalf and the rest of the Sailors coaches with helping him reach the top level of college baseball.
"The way Coach Metcalf goes about things is professional," Whittaker said. "He's one of the best coaches you can have before you get to college. The way he runs his practices and workouts, he really develops his players. He understands that each player is different and he gives everyone advice in their best interest. I still talk to him all the time. He came up and watched some of my games. I am grateful to have played for him."
In part because of Whittaker's success in relief, the Seminoles went 34-25 and reached the regional stage of the NCAA postseason. While the team bowed out of the tournament after losses to Auburn and UCLA, Whittaker said the experience of playing for a shot at the College World Series was one he will never forget.
Whittaker pitched in the Auburn loss and recalled the walk to the FSU bullpen as being lined with enthusiastic Tigers fans screaming at him.
The postseason didn't last as long as Whittaker would have liked, but getting a taste of it was good motivation for his offseason.
Whittaker is playing in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League in New York, getting in some innings with the Amsterdam Mohawks. Once the summer season is a wrap, Whittaker said he will turn his attention to his body, with the goal of improving his strength. Come the fall, Whittaker will pick up baseball-centric activities once again and get ready for his second college spring.
He can't wait — and he's thankful to everyone on the ride with him.
"I see all the support from back home," Whittaker said. "I appreciate it. I'm glad to be from Sarasota and still have a lot of close relationships with people there. I'm grateful."
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