The method to FIU taking a doubleheader from Rutgers on Saturday couldn’t have been simpler: knock the Scarlet Knights down with early hitting, then keep them down with solid pitching and defense.
And so it went in 13-1 and 5-0 wins at FIU Baseball Stadium that gave the Panthers three wins in the first two days of the 2014 season. The series concludes Sunday at 1 p.m. with FIU sending freshman Cody Crouse to the mound against Rutgers redshirt freshman right-hander Kevin Baxter.
FIU held a 4-0 lead after two innings in each game, and led 2-0 in the first game and 3-0 in the second game by the time Rutgers got the first Panther out. At the top of the order, senior Tyler Hibbert, junior Julius Gaines, junior Aramis Garcia, sophomore Edwin Rios and junior Josh Anderson combined to score 12 of FIU’s 18 runs, including all five in the second game.
Garcia went 5 for 7 with three RBI, Anderson went 5 for 8 with five RBI and Gaines went 4 for 7 with three RBI. But Gaines’ main source of joy Saturday came from several dazzling, athletic fielding plays, including four double plays, after making two errors in Friday’s opener.
“I’ve got a lot of pride in my glove. I came out early to work on a couple of things, and it paid off,” Gaines said. “Just using my legs in my throws. [Friday night], I let a couple get away from me. But I knew what it was, and it was an easy fix.”
Starters Robby Kalaf and senior Mike Ellis, the latter returning from a damaging lower back injury that ended his season early last year and threatened to end his career, gave up zero runs and four hits in a combined nine innings of work.
“I felt really grateful,” Ellis said after giving up two hits in five innings. “It was a huge opportunity for me to come back. I had some concerns after last season if it was going to happen. [Saturday night], I was happy just to be able to play. It was nice to be back with the team.”
Saturday’s opener lasted nine innings, only the first three of which mattered. If it were a high school game, the mercy rule would have applied. That might have saved Kalaf’s right hand from the big owie it received at the end of the fourth inning that ended his night after allowing only two hits in 14 batters faced.
With Michael Zabala on first and Mike Carter on second with two outs, Rutgers’ Vinny Zarrillo cracked a rocket off Kalaf’s throwing hand. Kalaf clutched his hand as second baseman Rios scooped up the carom and tagged out Zabala without breaking stride. Kalaf left the game for senior Ty Sullivan, who wound up getting the win.
“Bruise — no fracture; thank the Lord,” said FIU coach Turtle Thomas, undoubtedly remembering last year’s stream of pitching injuries.
FIU confined the damage inflicted upon Rutgers starter Jon Young to the scoreboard.
The Panthers batted around in two of the first three innings. FIU led 2-0 on singles by Hibbert, Gaines, Garcia and Rios before Rutgers got the first outs, with senior Zach Sweety bouncing into a double play. That drove in a run anyway, and junior LK Thompson’s single pushed the lead to 4-0.
FIU led 5-0 in the third when Hibbert walked to load the bases for Gaines, who cracked a two-out double into the center-field gap, clearing the bases and boosting FIU’s lead to 8-0.