The general lack of respect food on which FIU athletic teams often feed for inspiration possesses a particular flavor for the 2016 baseball team. The team sees it as a sour melding of belated respect for the past under a sauce of disrespect for the present.
“We need to make a statement the first weekend of the year,” sophomore outfielder Jack Schaaf said of next weekend’s series at Ole Miss. “Not that we’re a good team and can accomplish the goals we want. But the fact that everybody kind of doubts us. They don’t understand the special players we have here.”
Asked if that doubt came from any preseason poll (Conference USA coaches picked the defending conference tournament champions fourth), Schaaf said: “Just kind of the whole feeling everybody gives us. There’s a lot of talk out there that we lost some good players so we’re not going to be very good this year.”
Such as when the first question a Miami Herald reporter asks about the upcoming season is “You lost a lot of good hitters from last year’s team. How are you going to replace them?”
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Those remaining from the 2015 team know how to spit success in the eye of doubt. After a mediocre 25-29 regular season, the Panthers entered the league tournament as the No. 8 seed and immediately took down annual favorite Rice 6-5. They scored 38 runs in the next three games, which they won by an average of 9.33 runs.
“We never were swept by any team [during the regular season],” Schaaf said. “We knew we could beat them because we beat them at least once.
“We know what it takes to get there. With the special guys who have been recruited here, they bring in some more talent. They will help the veterans out there who know what it takes. If they listen to them, they’ll really get what it takes to get back there.”
Said FIU coach Turtle Thomas said: “When we open up at Ole Miss, there’s going to be some big crowds there if the weather’s decent. I’m sure Andres Nunez pitching in front of a big crowd against the University of Miami [in the NCAA Tournament], that’s good experience for him going in front of a big crowd there at Ole Miss. For the rest of them, having played in that atmosphere will be a good thing. They’ll be calmer, have their feet more on the ground. But we still have a fairly good number of new guys that have to get used to it.”
Though the Panthers lost offense after hitting propelled them to the Conference USA tournament title after that 25-29 regular season, they retained the usual foundation of winning baseball.
“We really basically have all four of the weekend and Tuesday starters back — Andres Nunez, Cody Crouse, Chris Mourelle and Garret Cave — and we’ve got a good potential guy in Nate Pearson, a freshman,” Thomas said. “[Pearson is] a big body right-hander that’s got a very good arm, a plus-90 [mph] guy. He’s continuing to work on the off-speed stuff to be good. That’s probably the biggest good feeling we’ve got.”
Nunez, Crouse, Mourelle and Cave combined for an 18-20 record and a 3.82 ERA last season. All-Conference USA closer Danny Dopico and his 10 saves are gone, leaving the job open perhaps for junior right-hander Williams Durruthy, who went 2-1 with a 2.18 ERA and two saves in 2015.
As for offense, Thomas said with Schaaf and junior-college transfer Irving Lopez “you feel good about having strong one-two guys in the batting order,” but fluidity will define the rest of the lineup until they find something that works.
Here’s where the personnel losses get brought into the conversation. All gone are last year’s leading hitter (Brian Portelli, .343); second-leading hitter and leader in almost everything else (Edwin Rios, .314, 18 home runs, 56 RBI and .592 slugging percentage); stolen-base leader (Julius Gaines); and Josh Anderson, who but for missing 10 games with an injury might have led some of the categories Rios did.
On the other hand, Zach Soria and Schaaf finished third and fourth on the team, respectively, in hitting, and Schaaf’s 31 walks put him second to Rios’ 39. Also, hitting is Thomas’ greatest area of expertise.
“We’re a very talented team this year,” Schaaf said.
“We lost some great players and some bats that are going to do great things for their future. Coach does a great job of recruiting, and he brought in some great guys who are going to complement the guys returning. I think we’re going to be very good this year.”
At a glance
Coach: Turtle Thomas; Last year: 30-31 (Lost in the NCAA regionals); Top players: OF Jack Schaaf (So.), C Zach Soria (redshirt Jr.), RHP Chris Mourelle (Jr.), RHP Andres Nunez (So.). Noteworthy: FIU, which has finished under .500 in two of the past three regular seasons, was picked fourth in Conference USA by the league’s coaches.
Feb. 19-21: at Ole Miss; 23: St. Thomas; 24: Missouri; 26-29: Seton Hall.
March 4-6: Loyola Marymount; 8: Stetson; 9: Illinois State; 11-13: Manhattan; 15-16: at Jacksonville; 18-20: at Charlotte; 24-26: Marshall; 29: at Bethune-Cookman.
April 1-3: at UTSA; 8-10: Old Dominion; 13: Bethune-Cookman; 15-17: at Louisiana Tech; 22-24: Florida Atlantic; 26: at South Florida; 27: at Louisville; 29-30: at Western Kentucky.
May 1: at Western Kentucky; 6-8: Rice; 13-15: at UAB; 19-21: Southern Mississippi; 25-29: Conference USA tournament.