HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Like much of the regular season, the Conference USA baseball tournament didn’t go quite as planned for FIU.
The Panthers, who opened the season winning all 10 of their games in February but who also lost six of their last eight regular-season games, fell for the second day in a row in the C-USA tournament, losing 3-2 to Old Dominion in the double-elimination tournament.
And like what happened throughout the final days of the season, missed opportunities proved costly for the Panthers.
“We just left too many guys on base, and we couldn’t get the key hit,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. “We did a couple of times, but we just couldn’t get the key hit when we needed it.”
FIU left seven runners on base, but two of those wound up standing on third base and two more reached second. The runners got to third in the third and fourth innings, when FIU did not score.
“We just weren’t able to get them in,” Thomas said.
FIU got good pitching most of the game, and the way it got out of a fourth-inning jam gave hope to its fans. One Old Dominion hitter reached on an error, then the Monarchs went for the sacrifice bunt. But FIU starting pitcher Mike Franco, going for the ball, injured his left knee on the play and had to leave the game.
Albert Cardenas came on to pitch and got out of the jam with a groundout and a great play on a pop foul by Panther third baseman Josh Anderson.
“Mike Franco is a first-team All-Conference guy,” Thomas said. “He probably should have won Pitcher of the Year in the conference. Losing him is a blow to the team, but I think our guys kept battling and fighting well. Cardenas came in and threw well, and Cody Crouse came in and did well, so you can’t blame them.”
FIU went ahead 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth when Aramis Garcia hit a solo home run over the left-field fence.
But disaster struck in the fifth inning. ODU’s Ron Slaton singled and Josiah Burney walked, bringing up Joseph Guaragno, who was named a starter only 15 minutes before the game because of illness of regular starter Josh Eldridge, drove home both with a double down the right-field line.
“My time came, and I was ready,” Guaragno said. “I was just sitting on a fastball, got one and luckily it dropped.”
On the play, Guaragna went to third on a throwing error and Cardenas then hit ODU’s P.J. Higgins in the head with a pitch. After a strikeout for the second out, the Monarchs tried a double steal and when it was all over, everybody was safe, including Guaragna when a throw from the infield sailed over catcher Garcia’s head.
As it turned out, that was the winning run. FIU scored one more time in the sixth, when Zach Sweety tripled and scored on an Garcia double.
“It’s a little hard to swallow right now,” said Garcia, who had five hits — including a homer, double and triple — in the tournament. “It’s a shame because we had such a good team this year.”