FIU spent about an hour practicing the double steal last week, just to have the maneuver honed and holstered for a moment the Panthers needed to hustle a run, break a shutout or change momentum.
Or, tied in the bottom of the eighth inning with runners on first and third and one out. That was FIU’s situation against Rutgers on Sunday when Zach Sweety and Josh Anderson pulled off a double steal that gave FIU the lead in a 5-4 win that finished a four-game sweep at FIU Baseball Stadium.
Senior Mike Gomez induced two flyouts in the Rutgers’ eighth, stranding a runner at second and keeping the score tied 3-3 and wound up with the win. Junior catcher Aramis Garcia went 3 for 4 with an RBI. Junior shortstop Julius Gaines picked up two RBI, giving him a team-high seven in the four games.
Gunner McNeill, first baseman and eventually the saving pitcher, had two strikes on him when Sweety took off for second. As soon as Rutgers catcher Michael Zavala whipped the throw to second, Anderson barreled down the line from third. Rutgers shortstop Christian Campbell cut off Zavala’s throw but couldn’t get off a return before Anderson crossed the plate.
“Luckily, it was fresh in my head [from practice],” Anderson said. “I read the throw down and went. [Coach Turtle Thomas] is in my ear all the time about that. He told me what to do exactly.”
Said Thomas: “We don’t mind running or anything like that, but normally, we don’t try to score from third base. Josh Anderson did that. That was him. I called the steal of second, he took off and he scored. The guy couldn’t get it out of his glove at second … phew, thank God. Heat of the moment, he took off and scored.”
Two batters later, Brandon Gomez doubled down the third-base line, the game’s only extra base hit, bringing in Hibbert for a 5-3 lead. After Williams Durruthy gave up a hit and a walk to the first two Rutgers batters in the ninth, McNeill got the final three outs with a dusting of drama.
“I knew the lefty [Rutgers Tom Marcinczyk] was going to bunt, so I just wanted to throw him a strike and get the out,” McNeill said. “I almost botched the throw to first, but thank God [sophomore] Edwin Rios has a glove over there and he caught it.”
At full extension down the line, Rios scooped up the throw. Two ground outs later, FIU was 4-0 to start the season.
Once again, FIU jumped to a first inning lead on Rutgers through the work of the top of the order. Leadoff man Tyler Hibbert walked and went to second when pitcher Kevin Baxter’s pickoff move skittered to the fence behind first base. Garcia, the only Panther who consistently got to Baxter, wrestled a single to left field, scoring Hibbert.
Fortunate for FIU that Hibbert’s speed with the bloopiness of the single left little play for Rutgers left fielder Vinny Zarrillo. Zarrillo threw out Roche Woodard at the plate in the bottom of the third. He also threw out Hibbert in the bottom of the fifth, but Zavala bobbled, then lost the throw long enough for Hibbert to slide past, miss the plate, then get up and step on the plate.
FIU freshman starter Cody Crouse gave up six hits and two runs in five innings, struck out one and walked one.