Baseball set to begin season versus No. 6 Rice

When asked what was best thing about this upcoming baseball season, senior outfielder and reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year Pablo Bermudez gave an odd answer. “This team has no face,” Bermudez said. (Beacon File Photo)

By Eduardo Almaguer/ Staff Writer

When asked what was best thing about this upcoming baseball season, senior outfielder and reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year Pablo Bermudez gave an odd answer.

“This team has no face,” Bermudez said.

If there was one player that was a instantly recognizable in Florida International University’s baseball team in the last 2-3 years, it was probably Garret Wittels.

During his chase of Robin Ventura’s Division I, all-time record 58-game hitting streak, he brought an amount of publicity to the school that was unparalleled in the program’s history.

Now that he is in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization, Bermudez knows that not many fans will be able to name a single Panther.

“A lot of people thought that Garret carried the whole team, and he did carry his weight, but there were a lot of other people that helped Garret a long,” Bermudez said. “It’s not just about one player, it’s about the whole team.”

For a team with no face, however, they sure are getting a lot of recognition. Coming off a 40-win season and its second-consecutive NCAA Regional appearance, FIU has been picked to finish first by a couple of organizations. and Baseball America picked them to win the conference and on Feb 10, the leagues head coaches also picked FIU to finish first in the SBC preseason poll.

FIU was arguably the best hitting team  in 2011, leading the conference in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, hits, runs batted in and runs scored. Leading the team in many of those categories was Bermudez, who was picked to repeat as Sun Belt Player of the Year.

Bermudez is coming off a stellar 2011 performance where he had a .380 average, 17 stolen bases, a .534 slugging percentage and a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. He led the entire conference in walks and on-base percentage with 46 and .494 respectively.

Left-handed pitcher Mason McVay, and infielders Rudy Flores and Mike Martinez were also voted to the Preseason All-Sun Belt Team.

Despite having a target painted on his team’s back, head coach Turtle Thomas puts no stock into preseason polls.

“When you have a preseason poll, and you compare it to final standings in May, it’s never even close to what was predicted,” Thomas said.

Drew French comes in as the new pitching coach for the Panthers. He comes from Alabama where he oversaw bullpen sessions and strength and conditioning programs for four years. R.J. Fondon, the team’s opening night starter has been building chemistry with his new pitching coach so far.

“Me and him get a long really good. With him we could do big things with the pitching staff this year,” Fondon said.

Fondon will be followed by McVay on Feb. 18 and a battle between redshirt sophomore right-hander Eddy Pidermann and freshman right-hander Jose Lazaro for the Feb. 19 spot. Right-handed sophomore Michael Ellis is also projected to challenge for a spot in the rotation.

Thomas maintains that the same weaknesses the team had last season are the same ones for 2012. He mentioned that hitters still have too much trouble striking out and that pitchers continue to walk an excessive amount of batters.

FIU had the second-most strikeouts in the conference with, trailing only UALR. And though the pitching staff led the conference with a cumulative 3.46 ERA, they had the third-most walks. The first two series of the season are against No.6 Rice and No.20 Florida State University. While Bermudez and Fondon both singled out Rice as the harder of the two series, Thomas was not keen to single out one series as the more difficult one.

“In college baseball today, there are no easy games. Almost every game counts the same as the one before or after that,” Thomas said. “You have enough talent to beat every team on your schedule.”

Though the first two series are daunting, the team desperately wants to return where they left off last season – the championship game. When asked to use one word to describe the upcoming season, Bermudez used the word “finish.”

“Even though we had that 18-game win streak at the end of the season, we didn’t finish in conference tournament and we didn’t finish in regionals,” Bermudez said.

“It’s about putting it all together when the season starts. The sky’s the limit for this team.”

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