Florida International U

FIU Panthers ride wave of success into Coral Gables regional

FIU shortstop Julius Gaines reaches for a ground ball during fielding practice on Thursday at Mark Light Field, where the surging Panthers will face the University of Miami in the Coral Gables Regional on Friday.
FIU shortstop Julius Gaines reaches for a ground ball during fielding practice on Thursday at Mark Light Field, where the surging Panthers will face the University of Miami in the Coral Gables Regional on Friday. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

You can ask if Friday’s NCAA regional game also comes with a personal prize for FIU coach and former University of Miami assistant Turtle Thomas and Thomas’ former boss, UM coach Jim Morris. They won’t say it does (It does.).

You can wonder if any beef therein keeps FIU and UM from playing annually, as they did for decades (doesn’t help).

Then, you will get around to the question concerning what made this matchup possible: How in the name of Mike Lowell did FIU get here? What happened?

FIU (29-29) left May 13 for a season-closing, three-game series against No.13 Rice as a team under water, at 24-27, not even assured of making the conference tournament. The Panthers returned Monday as overwhelming conquerors of Conference USA in the league’s strongest sport and possibly the hottest-hitting team coming into the NCAA tournament: they hit .370 and produced 44 runs in four conference tournament games against Rice (6-5), Texas-San Antonio (15-5), Middle Tennessee (15-3) and Alabama-Birmingham (8-2).

FIU Panthers baseball coach Turtle Thomas holds a press conference for the NCAA Baseball Championship Coral Gables Regional on May 28, 2015. Video by Charles Trainor Jr/Miami Herald Staff

“We found our confidence again,” said FIU senior third baseman Josh Anderson, named the C-USA tournament MVP after hitting .467 with nine RBI. “We came together as a team. We knew how good we were as a team. We kind of underachieved all year. Once our leadership showed that confidence to our younger players, we started playing like we were supposed to.”

And like the preseason polls, which ranked FIU in or just outside the Top 25, said the Panthers should play. Raw talent, not proven performance, provided the foundation of that hypothesis. While Anderson, junior Edwin Rios, senior shortstop Julius Gaines, and sophomore pitchers Cody Crouse and Chris Mourelle all brought career credentials, FIU relied on a coagulation of the new.

“We had two pitchers back and five hitters back that consistently played significant innings for us last year,” Thomas said. “We didn’t sweep anybody this year, but on the other side of the coin, we didn’t get swept by anybody. It showed that our guys could beat the Rices, the Southern Miss, the FAUs, the best teams in our conference.”

FIU seemed locked into a cha-cha pace — two steps forward, three steps back, three steps forward, two steps back. Throw in a testicular injury to Anderson and the Panthers’ offense too often seemed a hit short, especially on Sundays. Sunday starter Mourelle’s 3.30 ERA led the weekend starters, but he went only 7-7 because of trickling run support.

If not for accidental bodyguard Middle Tennessee, which went 12-0 against the teams around FIU in the C-USA standings, the Panthers would have needed divine pitching, hitting and help to get into the conference tournament.

Before they left for Rice, Anderson said, they had one of several team meetings.

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“We made a box, and we all wrote down four things we could contribute to the team,” Anderson said. “We put it in the box. We’ve been carrying that box around everywhere with us. You look at it as a reminder of what you can bring to the table every single day. I think that’s helped us.”

FIU crushed Rice 11-1 in the first game of the series to clinch the eighth seed in the tournament and confirm what Gaines said he knew all along — the Panthers were good. Between the last two regular-season games against Rice and the Conference USA tournament opener against Rice, the players got together again.

“It takes a little while for a lot of new teammates to actually gell and get on the right page,” Gaines said. “Everything that happened this season was a different piece to what came in the end. We sat down and talked to each other. We had a heart-to-heart about the whole season and even the future. Not just baseball, but things that you want to accomplish in life. I think things clicked and people ran with it.”

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