Image credit: FAU coach Jim McCormack (Photo by Richard Lewis/Getty Images)
All around the country, there are college baseball teams of regional quality. Many of those same teams also have regional-quality resumes.
Those two things often go hand-in-hand, but that’s not always the case. And as it stands right now, Florida Atlantic is firmly straddling the line between the two, confident that it’s the former, but working toward making sure it also ends up being the latter when it’s all said and done.
Whether you are combing through stats or looking at the team on the field, FAU looks the part.
The Owls can mash. They’re hitting .299/.388/.448 with 39 home runs, good enough to rank in the top three in Conference USA in all four categories.
That has them ahead of last year’s pace, when they hit .273/.366/.439, and right in the neighborhood of last year’s pace in home runs, when they finished with 79. Not bad for a team that lost its two top home run hitters from last year in shortstop Tyler Frank and outfielder Cody Wilson and its top hitter in outfielder David Miranda.
Veterans are doing the heavy lifting up and down the lineup, most notably senior third baseman Joe Montes, who is hitting .340/.396/.514 with 11 doubles, junior center fielder and leadoff hitter Eric Rivera (.331/.411/.446) and junior catcher Pedro Pages (.319/.444/.431).
But the guy who really makes them go is a newcomer in infielder Francisco Urbaez, a transfer from Chipola (Fla.) JC. He is hitting .359/.472/.579 and leads the team in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs (7).
“All the guys came in here and they play the game the right way,” said Pages, who is a team captain. “Everyone is positive with each other, they all respect each other, so it hasn’t been tough (bringing new players along).”
So, the Owls will be happy to try to outslug opponents, but there is balance on this team as well. Redshirt senior righthander Blake Sanderson (7-1, 3.39) has taken to his role as a Friday starter. Sidewinding senior righthander Zach Schneider, who has ten saves and a 2.45 ERA, is now going on his second year as a dependable closer.
Freshman righthander Michael Schuler emerged as a weapon out of the bullpen immediately after stepping on campus, as he sports a 2.22 ERA in 28.1 innings, and righthander Vince Coletti, with a 2.79 ERA in 42 relief innings after serving as a weekend starter a year ago, has perhaps been the biggest linchpin on the staff.
“He was in the rotation last year, and it went badly at the end, and he didn’t handle the, ‘pitch Sunday then wait until Sunday (aspect of starting).’ And the compression of a couple of bad starts, he couldn’t function,” McCormack said of Coletti. “This was a way better option for him, mentally, to come in and be able to kind of blow it out for an inning or two.”
Or, rather than looking at the player’s stats, you can look at the record as a sign of how good the Owls are. At 28-12 overall and 14-4 in C-USA, FAU has been a good team from a wins and losses perspective, particularly when you consider that they began the season 3-6. Again, that puts them on track to equal or better last season’s 44-19-1 overall record and 19-8 mark in C-USA, and that was a team that ended up pushing Florida to a seventh and deciding game in the Gainesville Regional.
But the metrics simply haven’t caught up, and that has FAU in a perilous position with about a month left in the season.
They currently sit at No. 52 in the RPI, which is a notch or two below where they would likely need to be in order to get an at-large bid. The Boyd’s Baseball RPI needs report paints a manageable, but somewhat daunting picture of improving that figure.
To finish inside the top 45 in the RPI, the Owls would need to win about a dozen of their final 17 games. But even if they get there, their record against the RPI top 50, currently 3-7, will likely need to improve as well. And even then, they still might need to add another data point, such as a C-USA regular season title, to feel secure.
And nobody understands the situation that FAU faces more than McCormack.
“We have some work to do. I think that, in one of the last projections that came out, we were the last four out, which I thought was very fair,” McCormack said. “The wins were good, the standing in the league is good, (it’s) just the RPI and strength of schedule.”
Even if it is still an uphill climb, it’s an easy bet to make that the Owls will get there in the end, simply because that’s the standard in Boca Raton. This is a program that expects to play in the postseason.
“It’s just the history of what we leave behind every year,” Pages said. “Every year we come out with a positive record, always good coaching, always good players. We might not have the best players in the nation like the top schools, but we will win, we will compete, and we will have a good team on the field.”
Recent results suggest they might be making their move. On Tuesday, they collected one of their best wins this season from an RPI perspective, a wild, 13-11 victory at Florida.
And if they really are beginning their push, there’s no better time for it, because their best extended stretch of resume-boosting opportunities is coming up quickly. Two weekends from now, the Owls will hit the road for a series against C-USA favorite Southern Mississippi, to be followed closely by midweek games at Houston and Sam Houston State.
FAU will learn a lot about how postseason ready they are that week, not just because of the level of competition, but because the travel will be tough. The Owls are busing from Hattiesburg to the Houston area for the midweek games, and then busing out to San Antonio for a series with Texas-San Antonio the following weekend. That can wear on a team, physically and mentally.
“That’s why I put it together,” McCormack said. “(It’s) two reasons. One, we couldn’t get home from Southern Miss until Monday anyway. So, then we would get home Monday night, then turn around and fly Thursday. Just didn’t make sense. And it was one of those things where, every year we take a little bit of a trip to show the committee that we’re serious about baseball, and of course the RPI is a bonus.”
Outside of winning the automatic bid at the C-USA tournament, there is no realistic way for FAU to be a regional lock before the field is announced. They are, in all likelihood, going to be a bubble team right up until Selection Monday.
But the Owls are a proud veteran bunch that is not likely to shrink under the pressure of trying to get in. It’s not going to be a surprise to see them fight as they take on one last, final chance to make a statement and put their squad among those listed as bubble-in rather than bubble-out.