Florida International U

Hiring of new pitching coach and ex-FIU slugger making a mark in majors give Panthers a big week

Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Edwin Rios (43) reacts after hitting solo home run against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park in Miami on Wednesday, Aug. 14. Rios is a former FIU Panthers baseball player.
Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Edwin Rios (43) reacts after hitting solo home run against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park in Miami on Wednesday, Aug. 14. Rios is a former FIU Panthers baseball player. dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Even though it’s college baseball’s offseason, there were a pair of big moments for the FIU program last week: the hiring of new pitching coach Willie Collazo and the first two major-league homers by school alumnus Edwin Rios.

Collazo replaces Jared Goodwin, who, according to FIU coach Mervyl Melendez, left the Panthers to take a job in amateur scouting with the Perfect Game organization.

In addition to that move, Dax Norris, who has been at FIU since Melendez arrived for the 2017 season, has moved from pitching coach to batting instructor.

That created the opening for Collazo, 39, who pitched for FIU during the program’s glory days. In his two years at the school (2000-2001), the Panthers made the NCAA regionals both times. Collazo won 20 games at FIU, including 13 as a senior when the Panthers made it to the super regionals for the only time in school history.

Collazo also made it to the majors, briefly, in 2007 and has experience as a minor-league pitching coach.

“He checked every box as to what we were looking for,” Melendez said. “We wanted someone with coaching experience in the pros, and the fact that Willie is a former FIU player is icing on the cake.”

Meanwhile, Rios, who is fourth in FIU history with 18 home runs, slugged a pair of bombs last week against the hometown Marlins, going 3 for 4 with three runs scored and three RBI in his breakout game with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“That’s huge for us at FIU,” Collazo said of the big day by Rios, 25. “We want to see guys who came through our program make the majors and do well.”

Collazo’s own major-league career didn’t last long — six relief appearances for the New York Mets in 2007, posting a 0-0 record and a 6.35 ERA. But he did pitch 1 2/3 scoreless innings in his major-league debut, securing a noteworthy moment when he got Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. to pop out.

“I didn’t realize what I had done until after the game,” Collazo said. “That’s when I took the time to notice that there I was in the locker-room next to guys like Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran.”

A native of Puerto Rico, Collazo came to FIU after two years at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He didn’t know anything about FIU at that time other than it was in Florida, and, after too many days with sub-zero temperatures in Iowa, that was enough for Collazo.

Danny Price was FIU’s coach, and Collazo produced for him. Collazo still ranks tied for seventh in FIU career wins and tied for third in single-season victories.

After FIU, Collazo was drafted in the 10th round in 2001 by the Atlanta Braves.

Aside from his brief stint in the majors, Collazo pitched one year in Taiwan and played winter ball in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

After elbow surgery while playing minor-league ball for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012, the coaches there noticed how other players gravitated toward Collazo. The Jays made him a player-coach, and a second career was born.

“I thought I could still pitch,” Collazo said. “But once they put coaching in my mind, I said, ‘Let me switch my brain.’ I still like being around the game, and I thought this could be better stability for my family.”

Collazo, who has a wife, a son, and two daughters, hopes his new life will allow for more family time, although the season and recruiting do require a lot of traveling.

“I have a lot of connections in the Midwest, in the northeast, in Puerto Rico,” Collazo said. “I won’t only recruit Florida.”

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