Jonathan Mayer / Assistant Sports Director
As we near the start of the 50th season of FIU Baseball, the Panthers are trying to bounce back after an uncharacteristic down season in the 2021 campaign.
Head Coach Mervyl Melendez told PantherNOW in an exclusive interview, “This team has a sense of toughness that has not been seen ever in my time at FIU.”
The Blue and Gold went 20-31 last season, including going 11-19 in Conference-USA, which placed them ninth out of the 12 teams in C-USA.
The Panthers had a team batting average of .258 and scored a total of 258 runs. FIU struggled with a team ERA of 6.51, which was second to last in the conference.
FIU’s top offense contributor was first baseman Adrian Figueroa, who led the team with a .324 batting average with 2 home runs and 34 RBI’s. In his stellar rookie season, Figueroa was named to the C-USA All-Freshman team and is looking to improve this coming season.
Star outfielder Justin Farmer had an impressive season hitting .279 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs.
Zabala, who came in as the best baseball prospect out of Puerto Rico in the class of 2020, appeared in 31 games, while starting 14 games. He slashed .286/.357.375 with one home run and six RBIs.
Ondina, the second best prospect out of Puerto Rico in the class of 2020, flashed signs of talent in his freshman year. He appeared in all 51 games, made 47 starts and hit .265 with a home run and 21 RBIs. Melendez says, “He has matured physically and mentally.”
Girardi, the son of current MLB manager Joe Giradi, started in 47 games while hitting .215 with a home run and 17 RBIs.
All three are expected to make big leaps as leaders for this group this year.
On the pitching side, the Panther relied on senior Tyler Myrick who led the team in strikeouts with 67, Steven Casey who threw the first no-hitter in FIU history who came in with a 3.99 ERA, and Angel Tiburcio, who had a team leading ERA in 3.23 and had the most appearances on the pitching staff with 19 games.
However, Myrick was drafted to the San Francisco Giants, Farmer signed as an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Padres and Steven Casey left the program.
With the constant change, the Panthers added a total of 18 new guys between transfers and recruits to the roster.
“The training in the fall, the new approach on offense and on the pitching side, getting the experience in our practices has been beneficial for our program,” Melendez says.
New Faces on the Coaching Staff
Prior to the season, Melendez brought in new coaches to his staff for the 2022 campaign including MLB experience and a familiar face.
His first hire was former MLB player and World Series champion Jeff Conine. Conine played Major League Baseball for 17 years including 10 seasons with the Florida Marlins where he hit .290 with 120 home runs and 553 RBI’s, thus dubbed the nickname “Mr. Marlin.”
“It’s been phenomenal having Jeff on our staff, you never stop learning with him. He has refined and fixed the flaws that we had on our offense,” Melendez says.
Conine’s roles include associate head coach mainly responsible for refining players hitting mechanics and player development.
“I have been loving it, I love teaching and talking about the game, so what I get here is engaged and hungry athletes that want to get better,” Conine says.
Another coaching addition was Derek Cartaya, who played for FIU from 2016-2021 as an volunteer assistant coach whose responsibilities will be with the infielders and base running.
Melendez adds that Cartaya, “He has been a tremendous help working with our infielders this year.”
A Successful Recruiting Class
Another big task for the program was adding talent and recruiting players for the season.
The coaching staff had another successful recruiting class being 26th in the nation for the 2021 signing class according to Perfect Game USA.
Eckaus is a left handed pitcher from Brandon, Florida who pitching coach Willie Collazo says, “He has a clean arm action that can throw any pitches for strike and the ability to throw the slider at any time on the count while keeping hitters off balance.”
Gonzalez, a right hand pitcher, and also an infielder comes from American Heritage, Pineiro went to Westminster and is the son of former MLB pitcher Joel Piniero.
Puk is a right handed pitcher from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is the brother of current MLB pitcher AJ Puk, who plays for the Oakland Athletics. Rodriguez hails from New York, who Collazo adds, “Justin has electric stuff on the mound and has a repeatable delivery with a fast-live arm. He throws from a mid 3/4 arm slot with whippy arm action.”
Melendez, is a product of Westminster High School from Palmetto Bay, and the 7th best catching prospect in his class according to Perfect Game USA. Melendez is also the son of the head coach, Mervyl.
Hurst, comes from Port Orange, Florida who hit .348 for Spruce Creek High School, and Loriga hails from Hialeah, Florida who is ranked the fourth best third baseman in the State of Florida.
Azola is a catcher that comes from Coral Gables Senior High School.
Gonzalez, a right hand pitcher, and also an infielder comes from American Heritage
FIU added also six transfers who are all pitchers coming from power-five schools. The names include Ryan Cabarcas and Kevin Martin from the University of Florida, Drake Batcho, who made eight appearances with Cincinnati last season. Patrick Pridgen, from Oregon, Carlos Anziani from Michigan and Jack Clemete who made four appearances with LaSalle.
- St. Thomas (MN) Tommies 02/18-2/20 at FIU Baseball Stadium
The Blue & Gold will kick off their 50th season taking on the University of St. Thomas Tommies from Minnesota. This season, the Tommies will be making the jump to Division I athletics after spending 48 years on the Division III level.
Last season, St. Thomas went 37-10 and were runners-up in the NCAA Division III College world series.
FIU will take on the Tommies on Friday, February 18th at 7 p.m., Saturday, February 19th at 6 p.m. and Sunday, February 20th at 12 p.m.
- Bethune-Cookman Wildcats 02/22 at Jackie Robinson Stadium and 04/5 at FIU Baseball Stadium
This will be the 13th season that the Panthers will take on the Bethune Cookman Wildcats, a Division I program. FIU is currently 16-9 in the rivalry, winning the last six appearances with their last win coming on March 11, 2020 in a 4-2 victory at FIU Baseball Stadium.
The Wildcats did not play last season due to COVID-19. FIU Head Coach Mervyl Melendez was formerly the head coach of Bethune Cookman from 2000-2001 where he took the Wildcats to eleven straight Mid-Eastern American Championships.
FIU will first head to Daytona Beach on Tuesday, February 22nd at 7 p.m. and the series will head back to 8th Street on Tuesday, April 5th at 7 p.m.
- Michigan Wolverines 02/25-02/27 at FIU Baseball Stadium
Probably the most intriguing series of the season as FIU will welcome in the University of Michigan Wolverines for a three game weekend series.
This will be the first ever meeting between both schools.
Michigan is coming off a 27-19 season, going to the NCAA Regionals, however is three years removed from being the runner-ups in the 2019 College World Series.
The series will begin on Friday, February 25th at 7 p.m., then on Saturday, February 26th at 6 p.m., and finish the weekend off on Sunday, February 27th at 12 p.m.
- South Florida Bulls 03/1 at USF Baseball Stadium and 03/15 at FIU Baseball Stadium
Another Florida matchup for the Panthers, this time taking on the University of South Florida Bulls from Tampa.
These teams have only met eight times with the last appearance coming on April 26, 2016 in a 6-5 win in Tampa. The Panthers currently lead the series with six wins.
The South Florida Bulls went 31-30 last season, where they won the American Athletic Conference Championship, as the team went all the way to the NCAA Super Regional only to lose to the University of Texas..
This will be a home-and-home matchup with the South Florida Bulls hosting the first matchup on Tuesday, March 1st at 6 p.m. and the Panthers will host on Tuesday, March 15th at 7 p.m.
- UConn Huskies 03/4-03/6 at FIU Baseball Stadium
A Big East School comes to Miami as the Panthers will host the University of Connecticut Huskies.
The Huskies had an successful season last year, going 34-19, they eventually won the Big East Championship, but lost in the NCAA South Bend Regional.
The weekend matchup begins on Friday, March 4th at 7 p.m., then on Saturday, March 5th, and end on Sunday, March 6th at 12 p.m.
- #25 Miami Hurricanes 03/8 at FIU Baseball Stadium and 04/6 at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field
The battle of South Beach is on for another year as both teams have agreed for a two game series in 2022.
FIU and Miami have played each other 15 times in the fifteen year as the Panthers have lost the last four matchups.
The Hurricanes were over .500 going 33-21, but lost in the ACC Baseball Championship and NCAA Regionals. Miami has high expectations going into the season, and FIU will get a good test this year.
FIU will first play at their own ballpark on Tuesday, March 8th at 7 p.m., and then head 20 minutes to Coral Gables for a midweek matchup on Wednesday, March 6th at 6 p.m.
- Jacksonville Dolphins 03/11-03/13 at FIU Baseball Stadium
In the Panthers final non-conference weekend series, they will take on the Jacksonville Dolphins from the Atlantic Sun Conference.
FIU has been successful against the Dolphins going 11-7 overall. The last appearance with the teams came on March 15th in 2016 as Jacksonville defeated the Panthers by a score of 10-5.
The Dolphins had a down year in 2021 as they went 16-34 on the campaign. They are looking to bounce back after five straight winning seasons dating back to 2016.
The series will begin on Friday, March 11th at 7 p.m., Saturday, March 12th at 6 p.m., and will finish on Sunday, March 13th at 12 p.m.
- Marshall Thundering Herd 03/18-03/20 at FIU Baseball Stadium
FIU kickoffs conference play with a matchup against the Marshall Thundering Herd.
Both the Panthers and Thundering Herd have played each over 26 times, with FIU in the lead with 13 wins. FIU split a four-game series last year against Marshall in Huntington, West Virginia.
However, the Herd had a disappointing season last year going 10-35, which was the worst season under head coach Jeff Wagoner.
It will be a three-game series in Miami, beginning on Friday, March 18th at 7 p.m., Saturday, March 19th at 6 p.m., and ending on Sunday, March 20th at 12 p.m.
- Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 03/25-03/27 at JC Love Field at Pat Patterson Park
After five straight home weekend series for the Panthers, they will finally hit the road as they take on the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs and the Panthers have played each other yearly as part of the conference schedule, with FIU splitting the series last season. Currently, Louisiana Tech leads the series with 12 wins, opposed to the Panther’s nine.
Louisiana Tech had a 42-20 record, which was the second best overall record in Conference-USA, while going 22-8 in conference play. This matchup will be an important test for FIU this season.
FIU will play three games in Louisiana, which will begin on Friday, March 25th, Saturday, March 26th, and Sunday, March 27th. The times have yet to be announced.
- Old Dominion Monarchs 04/1-04/3 at FIU Baseball Stadium
The Panthers return home with a battle against the Conference Champions in the Old Dominion Monarchs, for a three-game series.
It has been a tough stretch for FIU against the Monarchs as they are 8-17 against Old Dominion. Last season the Panthers lost three of four on the road in Norfolk.
For the Monarchs, they are trying to build back on what they accomplished last year, going 44-16, which was the best overall record in Conference-USA, and eventually won the conference championship. Yet, the Monarchs lost in four games in the NCAA Regional.
The three-game weekend series will be on Friday, April 1st at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 2nd at 6 p.m., and Sunday, April 3rd at 12 p.m.
- Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 04/8-04/10 at Nick Denes Field
FIU hits the road again this time heading to Bowling Green to take on the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
These teams have played each other only ten times since 2018, and the Panthers has dominated the matchup. FIU holds a 7-3 record over Western Kentucky, with their last series in 2021, the Panthers took three out of four over the Hilltoppers.
For Western Kentucky, they finished off the season with a 27-29, going 15-17 in Conference Play.
The road matchup will begin on Friday, April 8th at 6 p.m., Saturday, April 9th at 2 p.m. and Sunday, April 10th at 2 p.m..
- Southern Miss Golden Eagles 04/14-04/16 at FIU Baseball Stadium
The Panthers welcome in the Southern Miss Golden Eagles for an early weekend series.
FIU has not played Southern Miss in three years, with their last appearance coming on April 14th in a loss at home. The Panthers currently lead the series with 8 wins in 15 games.
The Golden Eagles had an impressive season with a record of 40-21, which helped them get to the NCAA Regionals for a fifth time in six years.
Both teams will play on Thursday, April 14th at 7 p.m., Friday, April 15th at 6 p.m. and Saturday, April 16th at 12 p.m..
- University of Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners 04/22-04/24 at Roadrunner Field
FIU hits the road for the next two series as it begins with a series against the UTSA Roadrunners.
This will be the first meeting between both schools in four years with the last appearance coming on April 22, 2018 in a 5-4 FIU loss.
The Roadrunners are coming off a 22-26 2021 season, losing in two games in the 2021 Conference-USA Tournament.
The Panthers will play a three-game series that begins on Friday, April 22nd at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 23rd at 2 p.m. and Sunday, April 24th at 3 p.m.
- Florida Atlantic Owls 04/29-05/1 at FAU Baseball Stadium
The highly anticipated rivalry between both FAU and FIU will continue late in the season as the Panthers visit Boca Raton for a weekend series.
FIU has played FAU sixty times, dating back to 2006, as the Panthers have struggled against the Owls, going 16-44 against them. Last season, FIU played eight games against Florida Atlantic, only winning two out of the eight games played.
FAU went 32-25 last season with notable wins over UCF, Florida, and Miami.
The Owls and the Panther’s series begins on Friday, April 29th at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, April 30th at 4 p.m. and Sunday, May 1st at 12 p.m.
- Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 05/6-05/8 at FIU Baseball Stadium
The Panthers come back down to Miami with a matchup against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders.
FIU is currently 14-16 against the Blue Raiders as they split the series in Murfreesboro last season.
Middle Tennessee had a down year going 24-29-1 as they are looking to get over .500 for the first time since 2014.
The three game set will begin on Friday, May 6th at 7 p.m., Saturday, May 7th at 6 p.m. and Sunday, May 8th at 12 p.m.
- University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers 05/13-05/15 at Young Memorial Field
The final road competition for the Panthers takes place against the UAB Blazers.
FIU has seen success against the Blazers, going 11-8 in the team’s history.
The Blazers finished the 2021 season with an overall record of 18-36 and an conference record of 11-21.
Both teams will play on Friday, May 13th at 7 p.m., Saturday, May 14th at 3 p.m. and Sunday, May 15th at 2 p.m.
- Rice Owls 05/19-05/21 at FIU Baseball Stadium
FIU will finish off the season at home with a battle against the Rice Owls.
The Owls have dominated the series between the Panthers going 18-8 against FIU, with their last appearance coming in April of 2019 as the Panthers took two out of three in Houston, Texas.
Rice had a down year with a record of 23-29-1, going 11-20-1 in conference play.
The final series of the season for the Panthers will begin on Thursday, May 19th at 7 p.m., Friday, May 20th at 6 p.m., and Saturday, May 21st at 12 p.m.’
- Conference-USA Baseball Championship 05/25-05/29 at Pete Taylor Park
The Panthers will have a chance to win the conference championship and head to the NCAA Regionals in Hattiesburg, Mississippi for the Conference-USA Baseball Championship.