By Brett Shweky/Sports Director
The FIU baseball team split their doubleheader against the Rice Owls Friday at the FIU Baseball Stadium in a crucial end of the season conference series.
After losing the opening game, 6-2, the Panthers (26-26, 15-13 Conference USA) managed to rally from behind in the second game to defeat the Owls (24-29-2, 12-15-2 C-USA), 8-6, to even the series. The closing game of the series was canceled due to a rainout.
Game One: Rice 6 – FIU 2
In the opening game of the series, the Owls rallied from behind in the ninth inning to defeat the Panthers 6-2.
Rice tied the game in the ninth when first baseman Chace Sarchet drew a walk from Panthers’ relief pitcher William Saxton as bases were loaded.
Freshman Luis Aviles pinched-hit the following play for the Owls, where he hit a grand slam in the top of the ninth to break the tie. Before the ninth inning, Rice was restricted to only two hits.
For the Panthers, freshman right fielder Adan Fernandez hit his ninth home run of the season. Sophomore shortstop Derek Cartaya finished the two hits and an RBI in his three at-bats, while sophomore catcher Javier Valdes ended the game with two hits and a run.
FIU starter Andres Nunez threw five shutout innings, struck out six opposing batters and limited the Owls to only one hit.
Game Two: FIU 8 – Rice 6
After falling to an early 2-0 deficit in the first inning, the Panthers followed up with a four-run second inning.
“That’s what you want to see out of your team, how they’re able to come back from a tough situation,” said FIU head coach Mervyl Melendez on the team’s ability to rally from behind.
Junior left fielder Lorenzo Hampton, Jr., Valdes, freshman center fielder Seth Cannady, and Cartaya nailed four consecutive singles to swing the momentum for FIU. Cannady’s single sent Hampton home for the first run of the game. With bases loaded, freshman first baseman Logan Allen was hit by a bitch to equalize the game.
The following play, sophomore third baseman Austin Shenton flew out to left field, however, gave Cannady the opportunity to score to break the tie. Redshirt junior second baseman Eddie Silva finished out by hitting an RBI single to score Cartaya, giving FIU a 4-2 advantage.
In the third inning, the Panthers continued to increase their lead with an RBI single from Allen.
With FIU leading 5-3 in the sixth inning, freshman Jose Garcia blew open the game for the Panthers by hitting his 13th homer of the season to break the program’s freshman home run record.
“Our freshman are very talented. At the beginning, of course, you saw the lack of experience,” said Melendez. “Some of the moment may have got too big for them at the beginning of the season, but you can see them changing their mindset. You see them playing better, they’re stronger mentally then they were at the beginning of the season.”
The Owls scored three runs in the eighth to mount a potential comeback, however, after changing pitchers, Panthers’ senior closer Chandler Raiden ended those hopes as he closed out the final two innings by allowing no runs.
Cartaya was 3 for 4 in the second game to continue his success in the series, while Allen and Shenton both had two hits.
As is stands, the Panthers enter the conference tournament as the No. 6 seed and will face the No. 3 seed FAU Owls. The first round game between the cross-town rivals is slated for Wednesday, May 23 at 10 a.m. from MGM Park in Biloxi, MS.
Earlier in the season, FIU and FAU split two games in Miami, FL on May 4-5. FAU took the first game in the series 11-4, while the Panthers won the second game 8-5.
If FIU wins the opening game in the tournament, the team will play the winner of the Louisiana Tech and Rice matchup on Thursday, May 24 at 5 p.m. Should the Panthers lose the first game, they will be rerouted to the elimination game against the loser of LA Tech and Rice on Thursday at 10 a.m.
The C-USA tournament is double-elimination format, which has two brackets with four teams each. The championship game will be single-elimination on Sunday, May 27 and will feature the winners of each bracket.