Eventually, as FIU and East Carolina multiplied scoreboard zeroes and drama during Saturday’s win-or-done Coral Gables Regional game, experience told.
East Carolina’s young team, in its first NCAA regional, blinked. FIU lacked regional experience but lived on zero-error margin so many times this season, especially with sophomore Chris Mourelle on the mound. The Panthers didn’t blink. They hit — four singles and two runs in the eighth inning for a 2-0 victory.
“Close games like that, we’ve faced this whole year, we kind of kept coming at them, kept coming at them and finally put something on the board,” said FIU senior Josh Anderson, who knocked in the first Panthers run.
FIU’s second Division I NCAA tournament shutout in its history was also the Panthers’ first NCAA tournament win since 2001. Also, they extended their scoreless innings streak to 16. Of more immediate importance, it brings them back to Mark Light Field at 1 p.m. Sunday to face the loser of Saturday night’s game between the University of Miami and Columbia.
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The winner of Sunday’s 1 p.m. game comes back Sunday night to play the UM-Columbia winner. Should the UM-Columbia winner also win Sunday night, that team will advance to the Super Regional. A loss Sunday night by the UM-Columbia winner means a Monday winner-take-all game for a Super Regional berth.
The Panthers kept themselves involved in all this by doing nine innings defensively — and one inning offensively — what they didn’t do in the first two innings against UM on Friday night.
East Carolina found few freebies from Mourelle, junior reliever Danny Dopico or the defense behind them — no walks, no errors, one hit batter. Mourelle, who had the best ERA of FIU’s starters but often worked with little run support, went 71/3 innings, faced 28 batters and threw 89 pitches.
“He was a surgeon today,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. “He just stayed after it, kept throwing strikes. I think he got the leadoff hitter out six out of eight innings. That kept them from doing things because they’re third in the country in bunt base hits.”
Defensive stinginess turned felonious on a diving grab by right fielder Zack Soria to end the East Carolina fifth with a runner on second. After freshman Jack Schaaf got moved to left field among ninth-inning defensive adjustments, he made a skidding catch of pinch-hitter Luke Bolka’s hard line drive. That kept Luke Lowery, who had doubled, on second with two outs. Dopico struck out Bryce Harman to end the game.
That’s how Dopico, a second-team All-Conference USA pitcher, introduced himself to East Carolina in the eighth inning — a pair of power strikeouts that stranded the Pirates’ Garrett Brooks (3 for 3) at second.
While Mourelle induces ground balls more than strikeouts, he got out of his biggest jam with a whiff. A single, a bunt single and a sacrifice bunt set up second and third with one out for East Carolina’s Reid Love in the sixth inning. Mourelle’s payoff pitch almost taunted Love as it ran away from a swing Love clearly regretted halfway through. A flyout ended the inning.
“I threw a lot of fastballs today compared to most days,” Mourelle said. “In that case, my slider got [Love]. I was pretty much throwing everything. Everything was working.”
That’s the same Love who pitched 71/3 brilliant innings himself: six hits, five strikeouts, 31 batters faced. But singles by FIU junior Edwin Rios and senior Brian Portelli put runners at the corners and ended Love’s day. The senior left-hander was replaced by freshman right-hander Joe Ingle.
Freed from the lefty spell that has often frozen its offense this season, FIU turned the threat into runs. Anderson singled in Rios. Sophomore JC Escarra’s sacrifice fly to deep center moved Portelli to third, and he scored on junior Austin Rodriguez’s single.
“Love was coming at the middle of our lineup with off-speed [pitches],” Anderson said. “And Ingle, he’s a freshman, he was coming at us with fastballs up in the zone. We jumped on those.”