Aramis Garcia will catch for FIU in Conference USA tournament opener

FIU's Aramis Garcia steals second base during their game against visiting Stony Brook on Feb. 22, 2014.
FIU's Aramis Garcia steals second base during their game against visiting Stony Brook on Feb. 22, 2014.
Gregory Castillo / Miami Herald Staff

For FIU’s Conference USA tournament opener Wednesday against Rice, the conference’s perennial best team, FIU expects to have its best player back at his best position.

The Panthers won’t put their best pitcher on the mound, however. FIU is keeping its ace in the hole for the eight-team double-elimination tournament.

After missing 12 games with a right oblique injury, junior catcher Aramis Garcia returned and played first base in the season finale. He went 1 for 2 with a walk at the plate. FIU coach Turtle Thomas said Garcia, named Conference USA’s Player of the Year on Tuesday despite missing those games, should be back at catcher Wednesday.

And Garcia will be catching freshman Chris Mourelle, not junior Mike Franco, who has a 9-3 record and a 1.13 ERA that ranks him sixth nationally. This decision stemmed from FIU (36-18, 16-14) dropping the penultimate regular-season game at Tulane on Friday after clinching a bid to the Conference USA tournament with a win Thursday.

Franco joined Garcia — who led Conference USA in slugging percentage (.588), was second in batting average (.355) and homers (seven) and third in on-base percentage (.428) — as a first-team All-Conference selection. Mourelle, who is 9-2 with a 1.70 ERA, earned second-team honors and was named the Conference USA Freshman of the Year.

“Once we got beat Friday, we felt like an at-large [NCAA tournament] bid was not possible anymore, because of where we were in the [conference] standings,” Thomas said. “If you’re going to throw Mike Franco, you’ll have to throw him two times on short rest. You’ve got to win four or five games to win [the tournament]. And since Rice really hasn’t seen him, that was our best bet.”

FIU lost No. 2 starter Mike Ellis for the season to a ulnar collateral ligament injury in his elbow. Also, Mourelle’s the second best starter of a group that has ranked among the ERA leaders all season.

Mourelle’s 1.70 ERA ranks 39th in the nation. He’s 9-2 with the only two complete games on the roster besides Franco’s four. He didn’t start during the three-game series against Rice in March but came in with two out in the first inning after Robby Kalaf took a shot off his right hand. In three innings, he allowed the Owls five hits and one run. FIU eventually lost 11-7, completing the only series sweep of the Panthers this season.

Rice has won a regular-season or conference tournament title 19 consecutive seasons but enters as the No. 8 seed. Since sweeping East Carolina on the road, FIU lost midweek games to South Florida and FAU as well as two of three to Middle Tennessee State and Tulane. The Panthers fell from No. 61 to 71 in RPI, according to the RPI stats listed on the NCAA’s website Monday.

“I don’t know if we’re not playing as well,” Thomas said. “We’ve pitched well, we’ve even played defense well enough. I don’t think we’ve hit the baseball well enough. We’re not putting together hits well enough.”

Part of the problem has been Garcia’s absence. A trio of dangerous batters awaited pitchers having to go through Garcia (team-high .355 batting average and seven home runs), junior third baseman Josh Anderson (.310, team-high 43 RBI) and sophomore second baseman Edwin Rios (.293, 37 RBI) in FIU’s 3-4-5 spots.

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