Panthers finish season third in Sun Belt

Eduardo Almaguer/ Asst. Sports Director
It should come as no surprise that the final regular-season game of FIU was cancelled because of rain. In a twisted way, it is a metaphor for a season where all expectations were washed away from day one.
The signs were there from the beginning. Looking back at the very first game of the year against Rice University, a three-hour rain delay plagued that game and the rest of the series as FIU opened up a season 0-3 for the first time in three years.The pre-season poll of FIU placing first in the conference and the almost unanimous consent that senior Pablo Bermudez was going to repeat as Sun Belt Player of the Year were washed away, just like the first and last game on the schedule and many more throughout the season.With former Panthers like shortstop Garrett Wittels, infielder Jeremy Patton, catcher Jose Behar and pitchers Kyle Fitzpatrick and Byram Garcia all gone, the 2012 squad was left to scramble to try and scrap together a team good enough to repeat 2011’s success. But it just couldn’t.

FIU, which finished third in the conference behind Florida Atlantic University and Arkansas State, finished the season with 31 wins and 23 losses, and an even more mediocre 15 and 14 record in the SBC. More than a third of those losses were against first-place FAU. Both records are a far cry from the Panthers’ 2011 season where they finished 40-20-1.

“The guys played hard and they played well,” said head coach Turtle Thomas.  “I give them a lot of credit and I think our record reflects our performance this season.”

Coming into the season, offense was this team’s biggest strength. The 2011 squad was known for overcoming bad pitching with great hitting, and 2012 was no different. FIU finished top three in the conference in batting average, slugging, on-base percentage, runs, hits, RBIs, doubles, triples, home runs and total bases.

The mystery in their mediocrity looms even larger when looking at their pitching. FIU finished first in ERA, opposing batting average, saves, least hits allowed and batters struck out.

So what was the problem?

“We probably didn’t field as well as we could have,” Thomas said. “That was probably the Achilles heel.”

FIU was dead last in fielding percentage with a .952 clip. Their squad committed 98 errors, tops in the conference, and 21 more than the second-worst fielding team. Freshman shortstop Julius Gaines had 26 errors, most by any individual in the conference. But Thomas believes a team can’t be the best at everything.

“Every team has problems. The number one team in the country has problems,” Thomas said. “You can’t be strong in every area. You can’t have great hitting club, a great pitching club and a great fielding club.

Thomas also pointed out that senior Mike Martinez played a big role this year and will most likely be awarded with his fourth-consecutive All-Sun Belt Conference, something an FIU baseball player has never done.  Martinez led the conference in on-base percentage (.498) and batting average (.393) and placed second in slugging (.597).

Looking back at the season, Thomas named a few moments that stood out to him, but he named beating FSU, currently ranked the number one team in the country, as his favorite.

FIU enters the SBC tournament in Bowling Green, Ky., and will square off against Troy, Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State beginning Thursday, May 22. FIU was 7-2 against those three teams in the regular season and Thomas said he is confident that his team can reach the end.

But there’s one factor that is unaccounted for that may work in FIU’s favor in the tournament: there won’t be a single cloud in the sky all weekend.

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