FIU won't begin defense of its 2015 Conference USA championship until March 18 when the Panthers open conference play at Charlotte. FIU, however, opens the 2016 season Friday at Ole Miss in the start of a three-game series. First pitch Friday is at 5 p.m. and you can listen to all three games of the opening series between the Panthers and Rebels on the FIU Sports Radio Network by CLICKING HERE. Saturday's game is at 2:30 p.m. and the series finale is at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Here is the first of a three-part series previewing the 2016 FIU baseball team. FIU lost a ton of offense from its infield last season with Edwin Rios, Josh Anderson and Julius Gaines getting drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Seattle Mariners, respectively. Rios, Anderson and Gaines accounted for 190 hits, 119 runs, 28 home runs and 119 RBI. The Panthers are going to rely on some new faces to spark the offense this season.
FIU returns three key bats from last season in catchers Zack Soria, JC Escarra and Austin Rodriguez. Soria (above left) led FIU in hitting for most of the first half of last season before finishing at .288. Soria got off to a solid start with the bat because he used the whole field and showed tremendous patience at the plate. Soria also displayed his athleticism when he was asked to play right field. Early on opponents tested Soria in right field thinking he was a catcher playing out of position but the junior made the plays and threw out several baserunners from right field. Soria could play some right field again when Escarra is behind the plate.
Like Rios, Escarra (above right) had a similar start with the bat to 2015. Both left-handed batters tried to pull everything and found themselves on the interstate, in Escarra's case he was on I-21 or had an average of .121 on March 8. But credit the big left-handed hitter who stuck with it and broke out against Charlotte two weeks later. Ironically, Rios also erupted in the Charlotte series, hitting three home runs in one game. Escarra went 5 for 13 against the 49ers and never looked back. Escarra put together a 14-game hitting streak to lift his average to .283. Escarra went 5 for 12 in the Conference USA tournament and finished at .271. Escarra might be FIU's best defensive first baseman after previously being a third baseman before coming to FIU. When Escarra's not catching he'll be at first base or DH.
If not for Josh Anderson acting like Roy Hobbs at the C-USA tournament, Rodriguez (below) would have been named MVP of the tournament after going 7 for 16 with two home runs and 10 RBI. He finished at .268 with six home runs and 31 RBI after starting 39 of 61 games. Among the returning position players only Escarra (33) had more RBI than Rodriguez, who played first base, second base, third base, left field and right field last season. Rodriguez is likely to get most of his playing time at third base and first base this season.
Newcomers Nick Day and Zach Files could also see playing time at first base or DH. Both have good pop with Files having hit 13 home runs last season at Grayson (Tex.) JUCO. Day is a right-handed bat. Files is a lefty, who can also play second base. FIU coach Turtle Thomas envisions Files hitting in the middle of the order.
Rey Perez and Eddie Silva can also play second base. Thomas said Perez has done real well both in the field and at the plate since practice began last month. Perez, a senior, can also play shortstop and might be one of the top gloves on the team. Thomas said Silva is going to play because "he is our best option at multiple positions". Silva has also improved at the plate as Thomas noted, "his bat has been the best it's been since he got to FIU". Silva can play second base, shortstop and third base.
JUCO transfer Irving Lopez has shown a slick glove in practice and intrasquad games and is expected to be the starting shortstop. Lopez played at Arizona Western College last season hitting .429 with eight home runs and 44 RBI. Lopez, who is a switch-hitter, is expected to be the leadoff batter for the Panthers.
Freshman Conner Shepherd could vie for playing time at third base. The left-handed hitter from Upland (Calif.) High hit .440 with five doubles and 27 RBI last year. Shepherd is competing with Rodriguez and Silva.
We'll take a look at the outfield on Tuesday.