Florida International U

FIU lineup to test Rice star Lemond

As an early season series, FIU’s three games against Rice at FIU Baseball Stadium this weekend mean more as a Pepsi Challenge comparison than in the Conference USA standings.

Only FIU swept its first conference series of the season, and no C-USA team holds a better overall record than the Panthers’ 16-1 mark. But preseason conference favorite Rice has the higher ranking in most of the college baseball polls. An exception is Collegiate Baseball, which has FIU at No. 19 and Rice at No. 29.

The Owls have gotten that ranking through reputation as annual NCAA tournament participants and competition. Of their 12 wins, four are against ranked teams and three are on the road. Three of their six losses came to teams ranked at the time and a fourth was to Sam Houston State, which now sits at No. 18 in the Baseball America poll.

Rice’s ace starter coming into the season, preseason all-conference pick Jordan Stephens, left two innings into a 2-0 loss to Texas after allowing one hit, getting three strikeouts and walking one. That’s the last Stephens pitched before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Last Friday against Old Dominion, Rice started record-setting reliever Zech Lemond, the preseason C-USA Pitcher of the Year, and Rice coach Wayne Graham declared afterward that Lemond is now Rice’s top starter.

Whoever Rice throws will face an FIU lineup that has been held under five runs only in a 3-0 loss to Dartmouth.

Get around current Conference USA Hitter of the Week Aramis Garcia and you find Josh Anderson, who is second in the nation in hits (31). Both have 11-game hitting streaks and .431 batting averages.

All five FIU starters — Mike Franco, Mike Ellis, Robby Kalaf, Cody Crouse and Christopher Mourelle — have ERAs under 2.00.

FIU will send out Franco (3-0, 1.07 ERA) for Friday night’s series opener.