Florida International U

FIU baseball team regroups, aims to improve on solid season

Turtle Thomas led FIU to a 36-20 record overall last season, including 16-14 in Conference USA play.
Turtle Thomas led FIU to a 36-20 record overall last season, including 16-14 in Conference USA play.

Catcher Aramis Garcia, the 2014 Conference USA Player of the Year, spent his three-season career at FIU without ever competing in an NCAA Regional.

Garcia, drafted No. 52 overall in June, signed with the San Francisco Giants and will now never get that chance.

“It’s sad,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said of Garcia, the second-highest-drafted player in program history, “because he was great for us.”

Thomas is entering his seventh season as FIU’s coach, and, so far, the Panthers have only made the NCAA Regional round twice – in 2010 and 2011.

When fall workouts began Sept. 24, Thomas addressed the subject with his team. He is hoping for better this coming season, and it starts with fall practices, and it will continue with bringing in a big name – Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson – for the team’s annual banquet Feb. 7.

On the field, it won’t be easy to improve on last season’s statistics. FIU led Conference USA in ERA (2.29) and finished third in runs scored and home runs.

Now they have to replace Garcia, who led the league in batting average (.368) and slugging percentage; and pitcher Mike Franco, who went 9-3 and led the nation with a 1.09 ERA before getting drafted by Tampa Bay in the seventh round.

Thomas said FIU was doing well last season at 34-12 when Garcia got hurt. The team finished 36-20 overall and 16-14 in league play, which tied them for sixth place. FIU lost its final four games, including two straight in the double-elimination conference tournament.

Sophomore J.C. Escarra, who was named the top prospect of the Valley League this summer, will replace Garcia at catcher. The infield is experienced and talented with senior Josh Anderson at third, senior captain Julius Gaines at shortstop, junior Edwin Rios at second and sophomore Gunnar McNeill at first.

Rios, who also plays outfield, will miss the fall due to labrum surgery. Thomas is optimistic he can be ready for the season’s start in February.

McNeill, a sophomore who doubles as a set-up reliever, was the MVP of the Valley League.

The outfield is not nearly as set. Sophomore Brandon Gomez and juniors Brian Portelli and Brandon Cody are among those competing for two corner spots.

In center, sophomore Kolby Follis is competing with freshmen Evan Holland and Jack Schaaf, who will miss the fall due to injury. All three are fast – the winner of the competition will likely bat leadoff – but Follis is on another level.

“In 38 years of coaching, he is one of the two fastest guys I’ve seen,” Thomas said. “He ran a 6.19 [in the 60-yard dash]. He might be the fastest [college baseball player] in America.”

FIU’s pitching staff will be led by Chris Mourelle, the conference’s Freshman of the Year last season when he went 9-3 with a 1.95 ERA. He will likely remain as FIU’s Sunday starter.

Candidates for the other spots in the rotation include sophomore Cody Crouse (4-3, 2.23 ERA last season); junior-college transfer Gianni Zayas, who has the best fastball on the team; and freshmen David Lee, Garrett Cave and Andres Nuñez.

Thomas said Lee has the staff’s best curveball.

The front-runner to earn the closer job is senior Robby Kalaf, who was a starter for much of last season.

Thomas is hoping Kalaf can nail down close games and that FIU can rise up in its league. Last season, just two Conference USA teams made the NCAA regional field – Rice and Old Dominion – compared with 10 from the SEC and seven from the ACC.

“What we’ve done [the past three years] is not good enough,” Thomas said of FIU. “Hopefully, we’ll make it this season.”

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