Irving Lopez’s smile gives him away.
As excited as the FIU shortstop is about the 2017 college baseball season, his grin widens even more when 2018 is mentioned.
Lopez, a senior, won’t even be at FIU next season, but he’s thrilled that new coach Mervyl Melendez has signed perhaps the nation’s best recruiting class for 2018.
FIU has commitments from six of Baseball America’s top 100 high school seniors — one more than the Miami Hurricanes.
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“It’s amazing!” Lopez gushed. “I’m excited for the guys who will be here next year.
“FIU is on the map. [Melendez] put FIU on the map in three months. I will keep up [with FIU baseball next year], trust me.”
Melendez, hired June 28 after previous coach Turtle Thomas was dismissed, comes to FIU with 17 years of experience as a college head coach, including 13 qualifying for NCAA regionals.
The 42-year-old native of Puerto Rico coached Bethune-Cookman (2000-11) and Alabama State (2012-16) before arriving here and quickly hitting the recruiting trail.
Among the players he signed was Heliot Ramos, an outfielder from Puerto Rico who Baseball America raved about in a recent story.
The headline read: “Ramos shines when the lights are on.”
Ramos went 3 for 3 in the Under Armour All-America Game at Wrigley Field in Chicago this past summer, clearing the 368-foot sign in left field and falling a double shy of the cycle.
Another star signed by Melendez is his son, M.J., a catcher at Miami Westminster Christian. M.J. is ranked the 15th-best prospect in the nation.
FIU’s other top-100 recruits are right-hander Wilberto Rivera (Puerto Rico); left-hander Logan Allen (Daytona Beach area); shortstop Andres Santana (Doral Academy); and right-hander Christian Santana (Plantation American Heritage).
The Panthers’ recruiting class is so good that it has even caught the attention of the cross-town rival Miami Hurricanes.
“Mervyl is doing a great job,” Canes coach Jim Morris said. “He’s had a great recruiting class… Let’s see if he can keep them.”
The reference there was to the MLB draft. Many — or all — of the FIU recruits could sign pro, negating the class. That’s something that will play out this summer.
It’s amazing! I’m excited for the guys who will be here next year. FIU is on the map. [Melendez] put FIU on the map in three months. I will keep up [with FIU baseball next year], trust me.
Irving Lopez, FIU senior shortstop
But for now there’s optimism in the air at FIU, and not just because of the recruits.
The Panthers’ 2017 team features first baseman Nick Day, coming off a 10-homer season; Lopez, a switch-hitter who batted a team-best .335 last year; and two standout catchers in Zack Soria and JC Escarra.
Center fielder Jack Schaaf leads an uncertain outfield, and the rotation is bolstered by the return of senior Chris Mourelle, who has 22 career wins, and talented left-handers Dominic LoBrutto and Andrew George.
There’s also the matter of FIU and UM resuming their series for the first time since 2008. The teams will play four games this season, starting Feb. 22 at FIU.
Morris had a falling out with Thomas — his former assistant — and discontinued the FIU series until Melendez was hired. Once Melendez was brought in, Morris called him immediately.
“He reached out to me shortly after my press conference and said, ‘Mervyl, we’re going to play.’
“I said, ‘I agree.’ I really had no idea they hadn’t played.”
Miami leads the series 92-24. The Canes have been so dominant that they have never lost three games in a row against FIU. Miami, meanwhile, has several long win streaks against FIU, including one that ran for 15 straight games.
Overall, FIU’s 56-game schedule this year has 33 home games, including the first 12 games of the season.
Jacksonville State, which comes in for a three-game set on Friday, is the first opponent.
The Panthers, who finished 29-29 last season overall, 15-15 in Conference USA, have been picked to finish sixth in the league, tied with Charlotte.
Rice is the favorite, and Florida Atlantic is picked to finish second in the 12-team league.
The Panthers, though, are confident they can play with Rice, FAU … and even Miami.
Lopez, who is from Arizona, didn’t grow up with knowledge of the FIU-UM rivalry.
But he learned quickly.
“Since my first step on campus, I knew Miami was our rival,” Lopez said. “We’re looking to take that series.”
Escarra, who is from the Miami area and knows many Canes players, is just as confident as Lopez.
“These past three years … we never got to have that college experience [a series against Miami],” Escarra said. “I’m excited for this year. We have a really good team.
“I think we’re going to come out on top.”