FIU baseball | vs. Stony Brook, 6 p.m.

FIU Panthers baseball team taking a wait-and-see approach

You could say it about many teams in any sport in the preseason, but the phrase “who knows?” describes much about FIU baseball, which begins its season with a three-game home series against Stony Brook that opens Friday.

As sophomore catcher Aramis Garcia said, FIU will know something “right off the bat. We’re playing a College World Series participant.”

Also, FIU will play host to Ole Miss and perennially strong Rice in nonconference play. Still, coach Turtle Thomas thinks it’ll be a little longer before he figures out what he has.

“Honestly, I think it’s going to take into conference play,” Thomas said. “I still don’t quite have a feel because we’ve got 22 new players. I don’t really know because they haven’t been through a DivisionI baseball schedule yet.”

The Sun Belt coaches guessed high, ranking FIU a close second in the conference behind FAU in the preseason poll. Garcia and junior right-hander Mike Ellis (3-2, 3.13 ERA, 88 strikeouts in 83 1/3 innings) were selected to the preseason all-conference team.

That’s a fair amount of certainty for a turned-over roster that saw three of the top four hitters graduate, including the program’s all-time hits leader, Mike Martinez, off a 31-26 team. But second baseman T.J. Shantz, the only player to start all 57 games, and outfielder Nathan Burns (.317 batting average, team-high 48 RBI) return and FIU added a recruiting class that Perfect Game ranked among the nation’s top 20.

“Well, we did have a good recruiting class,” Thomas said. “[Associate head coach Frank Damas and assistant coach Drew French] did a good job. We’ve got enough of a core team coming back who are good.

“Preseason stuff is so not correct. I hope it’s correct, but usually it’s not because nobody knows. You don’t know how your team’s going to perform.”

One of Thomas’ few certainties is Garcia, whom he calls “one of the best catchers in the country.”

Garcia hit .271 last year with six home runs and 29 RBI. This year, with a relatively inexperienced pitching staff, his play behind the plate could be a bigger factor in how far FIU goes.

“We have a lot of really really good arms. Lot of good velocity guys, a lot of young guys, new guys,” French said. “Probably over 50 percent haven’t pitched Division I baseball yet. The big picture is to get their feet wet early. We just don’t have the experience we did last year, but talent-wise, I think we have a lot better staff from top to bottom. There’re 14 guys who are going to pitch significant amount of innings for us.”

Ellis starts Friday and junior college transfer Mike Franco, who came off Tommy John surgery to throw in the mid-90s in the preseason, could start Sunday.

“Saturday and Sunday are going to be two guys who hasn’t pitched Division I baseball,” French said. “We have to get them experience now so that two weeks from now when Ole Miss rolls in here and Rice rolls in here, the lights aren’t too bright for them.”

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