FIU baseball coach Turtle Thomas hopes the Panthers have more bullets in their offensive gun than last year, though right now he’s not sure exactly who’ll be firing those bullets.
Oh, Thomas knows he’ll rely on senior third baseman Josh Anderson (.300, 43 RBI in 2014), senior shortstop Julius Gaines (.288) and junior position nomad Edwin Rios (.296, 38 RBI), possibly in right field this year after a year at second base and a year at shortstop. On the mound, FIU returns last year’s Conference USA Freshman of the Year, pitcher Chris Mourelle (9-2, 1.70 ERA), senior Robby Kalaf (3-2, 3.74 ERA) and sophomore Cody Crouse (4-3, 2.23 ERA), who will start the season opener Friday against Tennessee.
He knows the Panthers no longer have San Francisco Giants prospect Aramis Garcia, the 2014 Conference USA Player of the Year, or first team all-conference ace Mike Franco, now in the Tampa Bay organization. His C-USA peers know it, too, but voted FIU No. 2 in the preseason poll behind defending conference champion Rice.
“I think the depth of the pitching staff is better,” Thomas said. “But there are two positions on the staff that we’re still a little bit — you’ve got to see how the season unfolds and see who’s going to take the Friday guy on a consistent basis and it may be Cody. He’s the heir apparent, being the Saturday guy last year. And then who’s going to be the closer. You’ll see when that happens, who can handle it. Probably more mentally handle it than physically. A lot of people can start a game, not everybody can finish a game.”
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It’s pitching depth that Thomas realized as the difference between the Sun Belt and Conference USA, to which FIU moved in 2013-14. The Panthers had it. Led by Franco’s second-in-the-nation 1.09 ERA, their staff ERA of 2.29 ranked fifth nationally. They led the conference with 14 shutouts.
The rest of the league, however, could throw a little bit, too.
“I think we made some adjustments last year,” Thomas said. “We bunted a little more, we hit-and-ran a little more, we stole some bases. You’ve got to have more bullets in your gun offensively. You have to have more ways to win. You can’t just hit doubles and homers to win.
“If we were better offensively last year, we would’ve won 40 games last year. Our pitching did tremendously well.”
The uncertainty comes in who’ll win the three remaining fights for position and what they’ll provide.
At second, Pembroke Pines Archbishop McCarthy graduate Eddie Silva is tussling with two junior college transfers, Austin Rodriguez from L.A. Mission College and Rey Perez from Wabash Valley (Illinois) Community College. Center field will be handled by sophomore Kolby Follis, freshman Jack Schaaf or freshman Evan Holland.
Replacing Garcia behind the plate will be either last year’s backup, sophomore J.C. Escarra, or transfer Zach Soria. Soria went from the University of Louisville to Mesa Community College, where he helped Mesa win the NJCAA Division II national championship.
Coach: Turtle Thomas.
Last season: 36-20, 16-14 in Conference USA.
Top players: Josh Anderson (Sr., 3B), Edwin Rios (Jr., OF), Julius Gaines (Sr., SS), Chris Mourelle (So., RHP), Cody Crouse (So., RHP).
Noteworthy: FIU doesn’t see conference preseason favorite Rice until the last series of the season. The Panthers went 0-4 against the Owls last year, getting swept in the three-game, regular-season series and losing in the first game of the conference tournament.