Florida Atlantic has opened the season with a nice streak: The Owls have not trailed in any of their first 27 innings. That becomes even more impressive when you consider the streak that FAU snapped during opening weekend: Alabama had never been swept at home by a nonconference opponent until the the Owls swept the three-game set in Tuscaloosa. The Tide hadn't been swept in any nonconference series since 2001. And it was Florida Atlantic's first sweep over a Southeastern Conference Team since 1999.
Starting quick was key all weekend for FAU, whose strong bullpen should excel at protecting leads this year. The Owls got excellent relief work this weekend even though closer Hugh Adams did not make the trip to Tuscaloosa because of shoulder inflammation.
"(Getting early leads) was huge," FAU coach John McCormack said. "The one thing we did a really good job of all weekend was capitalizing on some of the opportunities we had and on their mistakes. We ran the bases well. We had a number of two-out hits, some big two-strike hits, a couple sac flies, guys got moved over. Our short game was exceptional. We got a lot of bunts down. We have a number of guys where that's part of their game. And whenever they were able to score, we answered right back. We didn't trail all weekend, and it was good, not playing from behind, especially on the road."
The Owls have some new faces in the lineup, and some familiar faces in new spots. McCormack described senior Mike Albaladejo (pictured at right) as "the heart and soul" of his team heading into the season, and Albaladejo has embraced the move from catcher to second base for the good of the team (though he still caught Sunday's game). McCormack noticed Albaladejo taking ground balls at shortstop before a game at South Alabama last year and thought he looked good. He played second base in summer ball last year to give his legs a rest, so the Owls thought he could handle the move on a more regular basis to shore up the infield defense. It allows talented junior Mike Spano—the best professional prospect amongst FAU's position players—to assume the everyday role behind the plate, where his plus arm and improving receiving skills should be an asset.
Albaladejo is still learning the nuances of second base, but he has great baseball instincts and is picking up the position quickly. He also makes the offense go out of the leadoff spot—he went 9-for-15 (.600) in the Alabama series. His value to the Owls is impossible to quantify.
"It's really made a difference in our infield, especially with a young guy at shortstop," McCormack said. "With Mike, it's unbelievable to watch him play, his energy. He's only 5-foot-6 or 5-7, but they listen to him, they listen to every word he says."
The young guy at short is freshman Mitchell Morales, whose father, Alex, is a scout with the Nationals and used to manage in professional ball. Given that background, it's no surprise Morales has an innate feel for the game just as Albaladejo does, and although he made three errors over the weekend, he also made some standout plays.
"I told him, I'll take all those errors because they didn't hurt us. He had quality at-bats and made some really good plays," McCormack said. "He's a flashy guy, a step better than average runner, good feel for the bat. He has plus arm strength for a young guy. He's going to be a guy in three years; he's got a chance to play shortstop in pro ball, not one of those college shortstops that have to be moved."
The centerpiece of FAU's lineup is senior outfielder Alex Hudak (pictured at right), who went 6-for-12 with five RBIs over the weekend and hit two homers in Sunday's series finale. Like Albaladejo, Hudak is a team leader and a stabilizing force in the clubhouse. He's a quality defender in right with a strong arm. And his experience makes him a dangerous hitter.
Hudak hit .360/.452/.493 as a junior last year, but he hit just three home runs in 57 games. After three games this spring, he's two-thirds of the way to matching last season's homer output. That's not an accident.
"This year—it was only the first weekend, but he's starting to take his shots at hitting some balls out of the park," McCormack said. "The home run he hit later in the game, the three-run homer, he said he figured they were going to throw him a changeup and he just kind of sat on it. The at-bat before he was too anxious and popped it up, this one he stayed back, and it was hit far."
The Owls got good starting pitching over the opening weekend from senior ace Ryan Garton and junior righties Jake Meiers and Jeremy Strawn, none of whom overpower hitters but all of whom are competitive. Garton and Meiers both have excellent changeups that are key to their success.
[/caption]But the bullpen is really the greatest strength of the team. With Adams sidelined, FAU used converted catcher Mike Sylvestri in the closer role Friday, and he worked a scoreless inning for the save. Sylvestri has a power arm, with a fastball that bumps 93 and a good 12-to-6 curveball, but the biggest arm on the staff belongs to junior righty R.J. Alvarez (pictured at right), a third-team preseason All-American.
Alvarez spent most of his first two seasons at FAU in a starting role, posting a 5.10 ERA as a freshman and a 5.23 ERA last year. He has had success as a reliever in the Cape Cod League each of the last two summers, and FAU decided to move him to the bullpen as a junior. The Owls prefer to use him as their stopper rather than their closer. On Sunday, Alabama had cut FAU's lead to 5-4 with three runs in the fifth inning, so the Owls called upon Alvarez to stem the Tide. That's just what he did, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out two over three scoreless innings.
Alvarez's control is ahead of his command within the strike zone, but he can overpower hitters with his fastball even when he's not spotting it exactly where he wants. He ran his heater up to 96 mph in a brief appearance Friday night, and he has gotten comfortable with a power slurve after scrapping the 12-to-6 curveball he used to throw.
"It's not a true down-and-away slider. It starts out a little high and breaks into zone, but he throws it hard," McCormack said. "He doesn't get a lot of swings and misses on it, he gets a lot of guys giving up on it because they think it will be out of the zone. The one thing that helped him this weekend, in addition to his velocity, was he was throwing his breaking ball for strikes, so it helped him keep them off balance."
After one weekend, the returns are encouraging for both Alvarez and the Owls. FAU was in position to earn an at-large NCAA tournament berth last year before losing two of its final three weekend series and goign 0-3 in the Sun Belt Conference tournament. The conference will be rigorous again this year, and FAU's preconference schedule will offer a nice test, as the Owls start the season with 13 straight games against teams that were in regionals last year, continuing with Manhattan for four games this weekend.
But FAU has the pieces in place to make a strong run at getting back into regionals.
Comments will be monitored prior to being added to the site. Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be rejected. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed.
We have chosen to open up commenting to everyone, so comment away! We want to hear from each and every one of you! Leave a comment.
About This Blog
Syndicate This Blog
Search This Blog