Needing a win against Columbia in the Coral Gables Regional on Sunday afternoon to stay alive in the NCAA baseball tournament, FIU delivered its season in microcosm:
Good start. Slowly sinking middle. Scrambling recovery to survive.
Well, almost. FIU’s eighth-inning one-run rally fell short in a 4-3 loss. Columbia advanced to play the University of Miami in the Sunday night game.
The Panthers head into summer after cooking a strange seasonal stew: their second losing record in three years, 30-31, but first conference championship since 2010, first NCAA tournament berth since 2011 and first NCAA tournament win since 2001.
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“We started out the year and there was vast inexperience on the field and they learned how to play the FIU way,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. “How often do you get to the point where you have a chance to get to the Regional finals?”
They didn’t get there because Columbia right fielder Robb Paller popped a double inside the left field line to bring in two runs in the third, halting FIU’s defensive scoreless innings streak at 18 1/3. The 2-2 tie lasted until Paller’s RBI single in the fifth. Two batters later, Boca Raton’s David Vandercook cracked a grounder that suddenly attacked junior first baseman Edwin Rios’ shoulder, allowing a run to score.
Sophomore starter Cody Crouse (5-6) took the loss after going four and a third. Columbia reliever Harrisen Egly (4-1) got the win.
FIU’s offense showed up Sunday on time instead of on Miami Time. After not scoring until the eighth inning in the loss to the Hurricanes Friday and the win against East Carolina Saturday, FIU took a 2-0 lead in the first two innings.
The runs came from a Josh Anderson sacrifice fly with the bases loaded that scored freshman Jack Schaaf and a Zach Soria single that scored Austin Rodriguez. But after that, FIU went hitless for 4 2/3 innings while the Lions took a 4-2 lead.
“Honestly, (Columbia starter Ty Wiest) was just throwing strikes. We just didn’t’ hit enough off the sweet spot,” senior left fielder Brian Portelli said. On the many hard hit balls that turned into outs, he said “I guess the key to hitting is hit it where they’re not and we didn’t do that.”
Portelli started FIU’s eighth inning with a walk. Anderson followed with a single. After sophomore JC Escarra bunted them over to second and third and senior Julius Gaines walked to load the bases, Rodriguez’ fly out scored Portelli. But pinch hitter Spencer Levine grounded into a fielders’ choice to end the inning.