Conference USA vs. the Sun Belt? FIU baseball coach Turtle Thomas can’t compare and contrast the baseball in FIU’s new and past conferences. The only teams Thomas knows in C-USA are perennial power Rice and FIU’s fellow Sun Belt migrants FAU, North Texas and Middle Tennessee.
Now, 2014 FIU’s potential vs. 2010 or 2011 FIU, teams that went to NCAA regionals? That Thomas can compare.
In 2010, FIU had nine players who hit over .300, topped by Garrett Wittels beating .400. Five .300 hitters plus Rudy Flores and Mike Martinez at .291 and .294, respectively, powered the 2011 Panthers. This season, Thomas sees possibly similar depth.
“[Senior Tyler] Hibbert leading off is a good man,” he said. “[Junior] Julius Gaines or [senior] Zach Sweety in the two-hole are good. Both can execute, bunt, move runners. [Junior] Aramis [Garcia], [junior] Josh [Anderson] and [sophomore] Edwin [Rios] are going to be 3-4-5, not necessarily knowing the order yet. JC [freshman Escarra from Hialeah] is going to be in there somewhere. Sweety could hit sixth, if he doesn’t hit second.”
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Garcia hit for the student-athlete cycle last year. On the field, his .321 average with 11 home runs plus throwing out over 50 percent of the baserunners made him one of the 15 finalists for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the best catcher in Division I baseball. With a grade-point average over 3.5, he received the Sun Belt Commissioner’s Award.
Rios’ .332 average, .412 on-base percentage, 52 RBI and .548 slugging percentage each led FIU last season.
“More focus,” Thomas said when asked what he would like to see from Rios this season. “Focus and concentration. He’s moving to a position he hasn’t played, but for a game or two in his life, second base. There’s different cutoffs and relays, turning the double play from the different side of the bag. We had some difficulty turning double plays last year. With Edwin at second, I think we’ll be much improved on turning double plays this year.”
Getting the hits proved less a problem in 2013 than getting the pitching. After a 7-1 start, with the only loss being 1-0 at Bethune-Cookman, FIU’s pitchers paraded to the injured list. Six pitchers went down, including opening-night starter Mike Ellis (lower back stress fracture) and senior closer Mike Gomez (Tommy John surgery).
“For the first time since I’ve been here, I think we have the opportunity to have four legit starters,” said Thomas, the seventh-year manager whose team went 26-32 overall last season and was 13-17 in the Sun Belt.
That would be junior right-hander Mike Franco, who went 5-4 with a 5.23 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 62 innings in his first season after Tommy John surgery; junior right-hander Robbie Kalaf, a transfer from the State College of Florida junior college, where he won nine of 10 decisions and was the Conference Pitcher of the Year; and Ellis. Those three should be the starters for Friday’s season opener against Rutgers and Saturday’s doubleheader.
A pair of freshmen, Southwest High right-hander Christopher Mourelle and Valrico Bloomingdale right-hander Cody Crouse, a 19th-round draft pick of the New York Mets, start the season competing for the fourth starter’s role.
At closer, Gomez is back as a fifth-year senior and will split time with senior right-hander Albert Cardenas.