New Castle News

Local News

June 15, 2013

Soni’s Season: Neshannock grad reflects on playing major college baseball

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It was late afternoon Monday by the time the Sansones embarked on their bittersweet drive to New Castle.

Florida State second baseman John Sansone had just completed his exit interviews with coaches following the previous day’s loss to Indiana, the Cinderella team that eliminated the vaunted Seminoles — on their home turf, no less — from an NCAA Super Regional. Over the next 26 hours on the road, including an overnight stay in Charlotte, N.C., father and son would rehash the season, a conversation punctuated by disappointment and optimism.

The Sansones — John Jr. and John III, the latter known among a close-knit family as “Little Johnny” — had expected the next stop in their baseball odyssey to be the College World Series, which begins tomorrow in Omaha, Neb. Instead, he’ll get an earlier-than-hoped start on summer ball with the Amsterdam Mohawks of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League in upstate New York.

“I wish I didn’t have to be there so soon,” said Sansone, clearly in need of more decompression time after his first season of elite college baseball. The former Neshannock High standout will report to Amsterdam on Monday or Tuesday, and play roughly 35 games for the Mohawks over six weeks while living with a host family.

Such are the demands of success.

As a freshman unheralded beyond western Pennsylvania, Sansone played in 63 games for Florida State (47-17), starting 60 at second base. The Seminoles reached NCAA post-season play for the 36th year in a row, but finished as a footnote to Indiana’s improbable ascent to its first CWS appearance in school history.

Sansone hit .233 for the season, far below his career .479 batting average at Neshannock. Yet he emerged as a steady role player whose productivity was higher than his batting average might indicate. He ranked fourth on the team with 33 walks; sixth in RBIs (62); and was seventh in total bases (62). Sansone led the ‘Noles in the hit-by-pitch category, absorbing 13 errant throws. Batting ninth in FSU’s order, he delivered an on-base percentage of .379.

“My stats aren’t too great compared to what they were in high school, but I feel like I’m a well-rounded ballplayer now,” Sansone said. “I’m definitely a smarter player than I was a year ago. I know way more about baseball than I did in high school. Certain little things like what pitch is coming, what we’re going to throw. I almost know our pitchers to a T, what we’re going to throw on every pitch.”

Eric Luallen, a former FSU football lineman who has been a play-by-play radio voice for Seminole baseball since 2007, praised how quickly Sansone acclimated to the program.

“Florida State has a certain approach at the plate,” said Luallen. “It’s not the most natural, and it’s not easy for kids to grasp when they arrive here. Sansone has done a good job of coming in and embracing what FSU is trying to do.”

Mike Martin is Florida State’s wily, engaging head baseball coach. He’s been at the Seminoles’ helm for 34 seasons, producing 15 trips to the College World Series. He preaches patience at the plate and practices “small ball,” the art of reaching base however possible and systematically advancing runners.

Martin characterized Sansone’s numbers as indicative of “a winner.”

“He doesn’t care how he gets on base,” Martin said. “He wants to help the team in any way he can. It’s things like that that have kept him in the lineup. He’s a great team player.”

Exhibit A is Sansone’s willingness to hold his ground in the batter’s box, ducking only from pitches that are coming toward his head.

“Getting on base and getting our leadoff guy up to bat is a huge part of my game as the nine-hole hitter,” Sansone said. “Anything I can do to get on base helps the team. I’m willing to do anything.”

Sansone paid for his bravado on March 17 at Maryland, where temperatures that day were in the 30s. (“And I was just getting used to the Florida weather,” he said, laughing.)

Batting in the eighth inning, Sansone faced a hard-throwing reliever. “I usually wear a shield on my left elbow, but I didn’t have it on for some reason,” he said. “The first pitch just plunked me right on my elbow. For probably a good week, I couldn’t feel my arm.”

Sansone had two days the nurse the huge lump on his elbow before the next game, at home against Stetson. He struck out twice in two at bats before Martin replaced him in the eighth inning for pinch hitter as FSU rallied with four runs and a 5-3 victory.

Those two Ks contributed to Sansone’s team leadership in an ignominious category — strikeouts. It would have been delusional to expect him to match his gaudy numbers at Neshannock, but 56 strikeouts — 16 more than any other Seminole — was sorely disappointing.

“I knew I was going to strike out a lot, but I wasn’t expecting to do it that many times,” Sansone said. “It’s all a learning curve. Just seeing a lot of pitches is the key right now.”

Sansone’s discomfort at the plate is partially traceable to swing changes his coaches have been trying to ingrain since he arrived on campus. “They always harp about my bat plane,” Sansone said. “I kind of swing up, and they want me to swing down at the ball.”

At the Super Regional, which was shown nationwide on ESPNU, Sansone twice was pulled for a pinch hitter. In Game 1, with two out and the bases loaded in the second inning, he lined out to left field. He advanced a runner on a fielder’s choice in the 4th; grounded out to short with two out and a man on second in the 5th; and drew a walk in the 7th. Sansone was due up second in the 9th, with FSU trailing 10-8, when Martin opted for a pinch hitter. The ‘Noles lost, 10-9.

In Game 2, with two out and a runner on second in the 2nd inning, Sansone walked and eventually scored as FSU cut Indiana’s lead to 4-2. In the 4th, with one out and a runner on first, he struck out on three pitches.  With FSU trailing 5-4 in the 5th, Martin deprived Sansone of a chance at redemption, calling for a pinch hitter with two out and the bases loaded. Ironically, that batter took a page out of Sansone’s book and was hit by a pitch. That briefly tied the game, but the Hoosiers won, 11-6.

In both games after he was benched, Sansone was the first player at the top of the dugout to greet teammates between innings and after scores.

“Coach Martin said he liked the way I handled myself despite all the strikeouts,” Sansone said of his exit interview. “And he was happy with how I played in the field.”

Martin expects Sansone’s patience and work ethic to pay dividends.

“A lot of freshmen take a year to learn,” Martin said. “A lot of freshmen have hit ninth for us, then turned around and hit second the next year. I don’t know what the future holds; I’m just anxious to see John continue to work hard and go from there.”

Consider, too, that Sansone, a shortstop at Neshannock, was learning a new position.

“Second and short are totally different worlds,” Sansone said. “I played short my whole life; I never played any other position.

“Just seeing the ball come off the bat from second as opposed to short is (different). I never realized it. I thought second would be a piece of cake. Just getting a jump on balls to my left or right is so much different. I’m still not totally adjusted, but I feel like I’m coming around.”

Sansone had a fielding percentage of .959 (90 put-outs, 144 assists, 10 errors). That pleased Martin, since “no way was I looking at him as a starter” when Sansone was being recruited.

“We signed him with the understanding that he could play third or second, and thought he would be a good backup (as a freshman),” Martin said. “It would keep both of those positions honest. It would make each guy hustle to keep his position because Soni could really challenge them.”

Easier said than done.

“I definitely wasn’t ready for the mental grind (of college baseball),” Sansone said. “Just thinking about every single pitch, every single game, every single inning — that takes a toll on your mind. In high school I’m playing 20 games in a season, and here I’m playing 60, at a way better level, obviously. That was the biggest thing for me.”

But circumstances conspired in Sansone’s favor.

Early in the fall, during inter-squad games, Martin moved Sansone to first base as the backup for John Nogowski. “He was very impressive,” Martin said. “He won that job.”

As the fall progressed, Martin said he “didn’t like what I was seeing at second base. I just didn’t like it.  So I made up my mind I was going to move ‘Soni’ in the spring to second.”

By the time the Feb. 2 season opener against Rhode Island rolled around, Sansone had beaten out the incumbent, sophomore Giovanny Alphonso. His status was solidified in March when Alphonso was shifted to shortstop after starter and senior captain Justin Gonzalez suffered a hip injury that required season-ending surgery.

Gonzalez’s misfortune aside, Martin is quick to emphasize that Sansone “earned everything he got. Life’s all about opportunities, and John got an opportunity with hard work, and he’s taking advantage of it.”

Of course, Martin hasn’t posted a 1,770-611-4 record at Florida State by allowing players to become complacent.

Several days before the season opener, Martin announced that Sansone would be his starting second baseman. During an ensuing practice, Sansone missed a short-hop tag, which Martin seized as a teachable moment. He stopped the drill and yanked Sansone off the field, telling him he was demoted.  It was a ruse, intended to reinforce the lesson that elite college players must concentrate not only during games, but also during routine workouts.

“Freshmen grow every day,” Martin said. “There’s always something you see in them, and sometimes it’s the concerned — for lack of using the word fear — look when the game is tight. John overcame all of that. I don’t worry about Sansone. He’s done a good job, and I’m very, very proud of him.”

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