FIU baseball coach reflects on win against UM
To borrow and slightly alter a classic “Wide World of Sports” piece of prose: it was the thrill of a walk-off victory and the agony of an overall defeated season.
Lorenzo Hampton, the only senior on the FIU baseball team’s 33-player roster, hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth on Saturday, leading the Panthers to a 5-4 win over visiting Louisiana Tech.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, that was the final pitch of their disappointing 23-32 season. It marks FIU’s worst overall record since finishing 19-34-3 in 2008.
In addition, FIU finished tied for ninth in Conference USA with a 12-18 league mark. Only the top eight teams make the C-USA postseason tournament.
“It was bittersweet,” FIU coach Mervyl Melendez said on Monday. “You want to be playing for a championship. But for [Hampton], to cap off his college career like that is something he will remember the rest of his life.”
Third baseman Austin Shenton was FIU’s MVP this season, leading the Panthers in batting average (.330), on-base percentage (.425) and RBI (47).
However, Shenton is set to turn pro after next month’s draft. He is projected to be drafted in the first four rounds.
FIU’s only other .300 hitter was Derek Cartaya, who batted .313 with a team-high 20 steals in 23 tries.
Melendez, who just finished his third season coaching the Panthers, has had some highly ranked recruiting classes. In the post-draft report put out by Baseball America in 2017, FIU was ranked 21st in the nation. Last year, FIU was ranked 19th in the post-draft assessment and No. 1 in Conference USA.
But those rankings have yet to translate on the field. Melendez is a combined seven games under .500 in his three years at FIU.
Melendez’s predecessor, Turtle Thomas, was at FIU for nine seasons and went 281-240, finishing 29-29 in his final season.
So … what’s next for FIU?
Assuming Hampton and Shenton are the only key losses in personnel, FIU is in solid shape at the top of the lineup with second baseman Cartaya and freshman center fielder Jarrett Ford, who hit .277 with 17 steals in 18 tries.
FIU also had two catchers combine for 19 homers: Jose Garcia (11) and Javi Valdes (eight).
Logan Allen (3.11 ERA) is the ace of the staff, although he slumped a bit in the second half. Nick McDonald (3.91 ERA), Franco Aleman (3.97 ERA) and Angel Tiburcio (2.15 ERA in 19 appearances, including three starts) could form a solid 2020 rotation if they each take the next step.
“Our starters did a good job, but we lacked a little bit in the bullpen,” Melendez said. “We lost a lot of games late.”
FIU might lose more players to the draft than just Shenton. McDonald, Valdes and Garcia are among the others who are eligible.
That could leave a lot of holes on the roster. Numerous talented players suffered through statistically poor 2019 seasons, including pitcher Christian Santana (5.77 ERA). Among the hitters who batted under .200 were Adan Fernandez, Chris Williams, Kaeber Rog, John Rodriguez, Seth Canady, Luis Chavez and Kobe Lopez. They combined to start 139 games.
Fernandez’s slump was particularly perplexing because he hit .262 with 10 homers last year as a freshman. More was expected from players such as Williams, a 16th-round draft pick of the Reds; and Rog, a switch-hitting shortstop with power.
Out of 12 teams in Conference USA, FIU finished third in ERA but 10th in runs scored and 10th in fielding percentage. FIU hitters had the fewest hits, doubles and total bases in the conference, and Panthers catchers tied for the most passed balls.
FIU had a pair of four-game win streaks but lost nine straight starting on March 23. The Panthers lost all of their biggest games in the state, going 0-3 against FAU, 0-1 against FSU and then 0-2 against each of the following: Miami, Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast.
Going forward, Melendez wants to see his players mature and get tougher mentally. Another recruiting class is set to come in, although a lot will depend on how many of those prospects sign after next month’s draft.
“I understand this was a frustrating season for our fans,” Melendez said. “I don’t have a lot of patience, either. But we are building the program from the ground up. I believe our future is bright.”