University of Miami

They’re back. FIU, UM to meet in baseball for first regular-season game since 2008

FIU catcher Zach Soria (22) chases a ground ball hit by Miami first baseman Chris Barr (17) in the second inning as UM hosted FIU in the NCAA Coral Gables Regional at Mark Light Field on May 29, 2015. The teams meet again on Wednesday, Feb. 22, at FIU.
FIU catcher Zach Soria (22) chases a ground ball hit by Miami first baseman Chris Barr (17) in the second inning as UM hosted FIU in the NCAA Coral Gables Regional at Mark Light Field on May 29, 2015. The teams meet again on Wednesday, Feb. 22, at FIU. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The last time University of Miami and FIU played each other in baseball, Panthers catcher JC Escarra told his best friend and former high school teammate Willie Abreu, then a Hurricanes outfielder, that he was going to hit one “off the garage” beyond the right field fence.

Escarra struck out three times and went hitless in that 2015 NCAA regional game won by UM in Coral Gables.

“They threw a great pitcher and I guess I was really trying to hit it off the garage,” Escarra said with a laugh on Tuesday, the day before FIU was to host UM at 7 p.m. for their first regular-season game in nearly nine years. “I shouldn’t try to do too much this time.’’

That “great pitcher” was Andy Suarez, now a roommate and teammate with former FIU catcher Aramis Garcia in Scottsdale, Arizona, for the San Francisco Giants’ spring training. Both players will be together Wednesday night, planted behind an iPad and rooting for their college teams.

“This is huge,” said Suarez, who graduated from Miami Columbus High in 2011. “Those guys finally get to play each other in the regular season. It’s more competitive, more fun and there’s a lot more trash-talking at the end.

“Aramis is saying how FIU is going to beat us, but he knows it’s not true.”

UM has dominated the series — which began in 1973 — 92-24.

But the aftermath of an onfield football brawl in 2006 between Miami and FIU — not to mention a fallout between UM coach Jim Morris and his former longtime assistant Turtle Thomas, who then became the FIU coach until this year — helped stall the regular-season series between the Miami-Dade schools that are 9.9 miles apart.

This season, four games, two at FIU and two at UM, are scheduled between the four-time national champion Hurricanes (2-1) of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Panthers (1-2) of Conference USA.

Jim Morris, UM's baseball head coach, talks about how the line-up is determined by the players. The team will play Rutgers this Friday in the season opener at home.

“They’re going to be good now,” Morris said of the Panthers, whose 2017 signing class was rated No. 1 in the nation, two spots ahead of UM, by Perfect Game USA. “It’s a cross-town rivalry and a lot of our guys played together or against each other and look forward to this. They’ve got a lot of excitement over there with new coach Mervyl [Melendez]. I think he’ll do a good job.

“He did really well when he coached at Bethune-Cookman and Alabama State.”

Miami has made it to the College World Series in 13 of Morris’ past 23 seasons in Coral Gables, and won it twice under him. Melendez most recently led Alabama State to four consecutive 30-win seasons, including the 2016 notable of being the only Division I baseball team to go undefeated in conference play.

“I just think the FIU-UM series is good for the city of Miami,” Melendez said. “It’s great for those players who have played with each other since they were little, and it’s a positive for fans of both sides, based on how much they care about their baseball here.”

Former UM closer Kyle Bellamy, now the sports nutritionist for Miami football, will be at FIU Baseball Stadium with his 2-year-old son Rhory for the 7 p.m. first pitch. Bellamy’s wife, Hannah, an FIU graduate student, will head straight to the ballpark after class.

“The schools being so close, and so many of us growing up in South Florida, this series always added extra motivation,” said Bellamy, 29, who grew up in Davie and pitched UM’s final inning for the last regular-season game between the teams on April 23, 2008, a 6-3 FIU upset of the top-ranked Canes. “We wanted to make sure we won those games because we’re Miami and we still run South Florida.”

Aramis, Suarez’s buddy at spring training, called it “a shame” that he never got to play UM.

“Being able to play a school like Miami would have been cool,’’ said Aramis, who graduated from Pembroke Pines Charter in 2011. “Obviously they have a rich history, and any opportunity you have to play against a team like that gets you better.

“This series is like Florida State and UM in football. It’s a big opportunity for bragging rights.”

UM infielder Johnny Ruiz, a senior who played in high school at Miami Gulliver Prep and then Westminster Christian, is good friends with at least three FIU players.

“It’s awesome to be able to play with people you’ve known your whole life,” Ruiz said. “In the past we’d mess around with each other, saying who would beat the other if we played. Now we’ll get to see.”

UM AT FIU BASEBALL

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: FIU Baseball Stadium, 11200 SW Eighth Street, Miami, 33199

Cost: $12 reserved, $7 general admission

Broadcast: Radio — WVUM 90.5 FM. Live video broadcast at conferenceusa.com (then click on WATCHCUSA.TV; Cost is $6.95 for a 24-hour pass).

Starting pitchers: RHP Greg Veliz (Miami) vs. LHP Andrew George (FIU)

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