The stage was big and the spotlight a higher voltage. To a college freshman pitcher, this represented uncharted territory.
There was Bobby Poyner, currently a left-handed reliever for the Pawtucket Red Sox, set to take the mound for the University of Florida before an announced crowd of 25,291 at Nebraska’s TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. The setting was the College World Series, the year 2012. Poyner faced just one batter and only needed two pitches to record a six-inning groundout in the Gators’ 7-3 loss to South Carolina.
“I was definitely nervous. As a freshman, you’re not necessarily expecting to pitch, let alone the first game in Omaha,” said Poyner. “Coming out of high school, your first thought isn’t necessarily, ‘Hey, we’re going to go to the College World Series.’ You’re just excited to go to Florida and maybe help the team win.
“The next thing you know and not much later, you’re pitching in Omaha. That was awesome,” Poyner continued. “Once I started warming up in the bullpen, I realized that all my pitches were still the same. That helped me calm down. Once you get strike one, you realize it’s still just baseball.”
Side note: Poyner on that June 2012 day at the College World Series was the third Florida pitcher in a game started by current Red Sox reliever Brian Johnson.
Talk of Omaha and specifically the biggest stage in college baseball on a recent afternoon at McCoy Stadium was like a breath of fresh air. The fact that Poyner was the interview subject represented a stroke of perfect timing. Entering Thursday night’s elimination game against Texas Tech, his Florida Gators were still alive in this year’s College World Series, meaning their bid to defend the program’s 2017 national championship remained in play.
During his four-year career with Florida, Poyner was afforded the opportunity to make two trips to the CWS, once as a freshman and again during his senior year after learning he had been taken by the Boston Red Sox in the 14th round of the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft. It’s a wide-ranging spectrum that understandably is accompanied by a unique set of emotions.
“My freshman year, I remember being in awe of everything … the stadium, the other teams there, the atmosphere,” Poyner said. “Your senior year, the goal becomes, ‘Hey, if this represents the last time I’m going to be on a baseball field, I want to win. I want to win for my teammates and the university. This could be the first Florida team that wins the College World Series. I want to be part of that first team.’
“More than anything, you want to get back to Omaha and have success out there,” Poyner continued, referencing Florida’s two-and-out showing in 2012 that was followed up in 2015 with a five-game stint. “It’s your last chance wearing a college uniform. You want to go out on a positive note.”
In big-time college football and college basketball, the setting for the national championship changes on a yearly basis. But, since 1950, the College World Series has been held in Omaha. Every June, eight Division I teams from around the country head to the Cornhusker State for a shot at amateur immortality. With two CWS trips to his credit, Poyner can speak to a setting that for decades has featured a mixture of hospitable locals who know how to create a pressure-packed environment.
You make it to Omaha, you know you are part of a good program. At that point in Poyner’s life, the three CWS games he appeared in – he totaled four scoreless innings spanning two games for the Gators in 2015 – served as the perfect training ground for what awaited him upon turning pro. Earlier this year, Poyner was the winning pitcher when the Red Sox won the home opener at Fenway Park, witnessed before a sellout crowd of 36,134.
“You might still be in college, but you think you’re in the big leagues so to speak. It’s the closest thing to the majors at the amateur level,” Poyner said. “The fans out in Omaha are awesome. Every game is nationally televised. That’s exciting for a college kid.
“I remember practicing at the stadium under the lights and there being a huge opening ceremony with fireworks,” he delved further. “You can quickly tell that it’s a big deal to the people of Omaha.”
All told, Poyner’s pitching line at the College World Series reads 4.1 innings with zero earned runs and two strikeouts. He smiled when told that he probably owns the best all-time ERA among CWS participants.
“You don’t realize that at the time because you’re soaking up everything and competing, but that’s definitely cool,” Poyner said.
For Poyner, the CWS memories are still as vivid as if they happened the night before. The trips to Omaha in 2012 and 2015 really hit home when he looks around the PawSox clubhouse and sees players who were either signed as international free agents or drafted straight out of high school.
“Seeing so many talented guys on the same stage in Omaha is definitely eye-opening,” Poyner said.
It’s been a week of checking scores via television or cell phone. Naturally, Poyner will keep his eyes and thumbs on the alert for several more days as long as the Gators remain alive in this year’s CWS. Once his professional career is over, he would like to check out the College World Series as a fan – as long as Florida is one of the participants.
“It’s definitely a school pride thing,” he said.
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