Frank Rivero/staff writer
Several things in baseball always stay the same — the smell of freshly cut grass, the sounds of bats hitting balls during warm ups and the cheering of hometown fans rooting for their favorite team. However, there is one small difference for this year’s Panthers team: Nineteen new faces suiting up for the season opener today.
After losing power bats such as third baseman Mike Martinez and outfielder Jabari Henry, FIU looks to revamp its team with fresh, young faces. Right-hander Mike Ellis, one of the few returning players, knows how important these new faces are to the program.
“What we had going for us last year was that we had experience and had guys who had been to a regional before and now the team had to re-invent itself a little bit,” Ellis said. “It’s really a chance for us to start new traditions and I feel it’s a really strong building block for the program with all the new faces.”
However, Ellis isn’t the only one that feels this team is ready to win right off the bat. Junior transfer pitcher Mike Franco and third baseman Josh Anderson, both new to the team, feel that age isn’t a concern.
“Coming into this season, our rank class for this year was pretty high in the national polls,” Franco said. “But as practice started to get going and we started to get to know the players. We started to become more of a team.”
“We’re looking really good. In fact, we’re looking really scrappy,” Anderson said. “We got a lot of young talent mixed in with some veteran leadership and I feel that we are setting up to have a really nice season.”
Franco was right in saying that FIU comes into this season with high ranking; the Panthers were picked to finish second in the preseason Sun Belt Conference poll behind Florida Atlantic University.
The Panthers are coming off a 32-36 (15-14 SBC) record in 2012 where they finished third in the conference. Their hitting, a long-standing staple of this program, remained top-tier as FIU finished top three in batting average, slugging percentages, on-base percentage, hits, triples and home runs. A lot of that damage came from Henry and Martinez, who were near the top of the conference in most of those categories.
Last year’s pitching, led by Ellis, was tops in the conference in strikeouts and lowest batting average against. The two glaring areas of improvement come in the walks and errors department, where FIU found itself last.
Along with a second-place prediction, Ellis and sophomore catcher Aramis Garcia were chosen as part of the preseason All-SBC Team.
The honor of being named to the All-SBC Team and given the official title of Ace for this year’s Panther team is one that Ellis is very much appreciative of.
“I’m really honored to have that role especially with the amount of talent that we have on this team,” Ellis said. “I think it’s going to be a really good challenge for me.”
A question of chemistry arises with this baseball team, more specifically how to build it among all the new players, but Anderson said in the fall players would take trips to the beach to hang out and learn how to mix together as a team.
Ellis, a team captain, understands that building team chemistry is a must for any team to have a successful year.
“It’s pretty easy. With our schedule, we don’t really move around too much and it’s just bound to happen,” Ellis said. “We’re a pretty good team and a good group of guys so it didn’t take long to build that chemistry.”
As the Panthers prepare to face visiting Stony Brook University today in their season opener, Head Coach Henry Thomas understands that his team is one that is filled with both great players but also has areas that should not be overlooked.
“We have a lot of good individual players but again, we have 35 guys coming from 35 different programs that you have to put together in one bonding type program,” Thomas said. “You don’t get used to the level of competition until you play that competition. We have a lot of good individual players, a lot of good pitchers, defenders and hitters but then everything has to come together.”