You wouldn’t normally see tug-of-war contests and piggyback races as part of a baseball team’s training regimen.
But those two activities were just a part of FIU baseball’s preparation last fall as the team prepared for the 2014 regular season. During their voluntary early morning gym sessions, players would perform 18 repetitions of upper and lower body workouts – one for each home loss the Panthers suffered in 2013.
It was far from orthodox, but their unusual approach to training served a purpose that ordinary baseball drills don’t always offer.
“We had to rely on one another more than ever before,” said Josh Anderson, the team’s starting third baseman. “When you’re playing for each other, things fall into place.”
And so they have.
After 17 games, the Panthers are ranked No. 19 in the nation according to the latest Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Poll with a 16-1 record, making this the best start for the program since 2000. That Panther team started out the season 20-0 and went on to make a postseason regional appearance.
The Panthers’ success on the field has been clear:
- Opposing offenses are hitting a paltry .185 against FIU pitchers this season. The pitching staff, finally healthy after struggling with injuries the past two seasons, has a 1.43 earned run average (ERA) and has posted six shutouts so far this season.
- At the plate, Anderson and catcher Aramis Garcia lead an FIU lineup that has lit up opposing pitchers, averaging more than eight runs per game this season. Anderson boasts a .431 batting average and is second in the nation in hits (31) and doubles (9) while Garcia has belted a team-high five home runs to go along with his .431 batting average.
- The team’s defense – with a .968 fielding percentage – has also seen a big improvement, committing fewer errors and making big plays in critical situations.
But what brought it all together is something that cannot be tracked in a box score or calculated on a stat sheet.
“We have a lot the same guys from last year, but this year we’re all on the same page and the team’s chemistry is just better,” Garcia said. “Going into this year I was just trying to keep things simple. I just wanted to play my role, and at the same time, everyone on the team has been playing their role very well.”
Head Coach Turtle Thomas, now in his seventh season with the Panthers, points to the maturity and growth of the team’s upperclassmen as a big part of their cohesive team-first mentality.
“We’re a veteran team with guys that play with the right attitude and have the right approach,” Thomas said. “The teams get tougher and tougher as the season goes on and they know what to expect out of the season.”
Now that conference play is in full swing, the Panthers will be facing some of their stiffest competition yet, beginning with a home weekend series against the visiting Rice Owls – ranked No. 15 in the nation – that starts March 14.
The Panthers and Owls are no strangers. They have squared off in seven games over the past three seasons with Rice winning six of them. For the first time, they’ll be facing off as foes in Conference USA battling for conference supremacy.
“Rice is the king of the conference,” Thomas said. “We’ve been playing well, and I’m sure it’s going to be a great series.”
The players are approaching the series no differently from the way they have approached each of their first 17 contests.
“Conference USA has some really good competition, but we’re a competitive team. We feel we can hang with anybody on the field,” Garcia said. “It doesn’t matter if the team we’re facing is a Division II team or the No. 1 team in the country, we see everyone the same.”