FIU just finished its fall baseball practices, and coach Turtle Thomas has identified shortstop Irving Lopez and pitcher Michael Agis as his most impressive newcomers.
Among returners from last year’s 30-31 team that won the Conference USA postseason championship, Thomas said senior catcher Zack Soria and sophomore pitchers Dominic LoBrutto and Garrett Cave are the most improved.
Here’s a closer look:
▪ Lopez; a 5-9, 165-pound switch-hitter, is a transfer from Arizona Western Junior College. Thomas said Lopez will likely bat second in the lineup when the season starts Feb. 19-21 with a three-game series at 2015 NCAA regional participant Mississippi.
“He’s not a big, physical guy, but he led us in hitting this fall [.447 average with 15 walks], and he did it by a mile,” Thomas said.
▪ Agis, a transfer from Broward College, doesn’t throw hard — just 86 to 88 mph.
“But he has swing-and-miss breaking-ball pitches that have the sharpest bite of any of our pitchers,” Thomas said.
▪ FIU has two solid catchers in Soria and J.C. Escarra, and both can play other positions. Soria has substantial experience in right field and could even play second base.
Escarra, a junior who had shoulder issues this fall, can also play first base, and DH is always an option to get both their bats in the lineup.
▪ LoBrutto, a left-hander, had a 5.59 ERA in 9 2/3 innings as a freshman last season. This fall, however, he had a 0.00 ERA in 14 innings, striking out 18 and allowing batters to hit .065.
He is ticketed for the bullpen this spring, possibly even as a closer.
“Dominic had a shoulder problem in his senior year of high school,” Thomas said of the 6-1, 185-pounder from Winter Springs. “He didn’t have surgery, but it wasn’t until the end of last fall that he got back on the mound.
“He pitched this past summer, and his mechanics have improved. This fall, we [FIU hitters] got nothing off him.”
▪ Cave had a 5.32 ERA in 26 2/3 innings last season, but he will get a long look as a starter because he has the best fastball on the staff.
“He touched 99 [mph] twice this summer,” Thomas said.
In 17 innings this fall, Cave struck out 24 and gave up just four hits. He had 11 walks, and it is his control that holds the key.
“He still walks some guys,” Thomas said. “But he isn’t missing by much anymore.”
FIU graduated its only two .300 hitters — Brian Portelli and Edwin Rios. Portelli was their only hitter with more than 10 doubles, and Rios was their only player with double-figure home runs.
Thomas said he would love it if speedy Kolby Follis, a junior from Missouri, can win a starting job in center field. But Follis, who hit just .160 in 25 at-bats last season, is a question mark.
“Pro scouts timed him at 6.19 [in the 60],” Thomas said. “That’s in the same neighborhood that Bo Jackson used to run.”
Follis, the fastest player Thomas has coached in 39 years in the game, gave FIU some hope by hitting .313 with two homers this fall, leading the team with nine steals.
“Speed never takes a vacation,” Thomas said. “His speed could help us on offense and on defense.”