Experience is a valuable tool for any college baseball team, but what a team lacks in experience, they gain in emerging leaders and the energy of their freshman players. Florida International University boasts three freshmen who have become instrumental for the team, and will be top players in the conference in the next couple years.
Julius Gaines, the shortstop from McDonough, Ga. has improved both on the field and at the plate after suffering an injury last spring, which kept him sidelined most of the summer. “He’s just a solid player,” said head coach Turtle Thomas. “He’s going to do nothing but get better as time goes along.” Gaines is hitting .253 on the season with nine RBI.
Drafted in the 32nd round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Boston Red Sox , Gaines was ranked 25th in the country last year by Perfect Game USA, and was also named Baseball America Preseason All-American and Rawlings First Team All-American. Although also recruited by Florida State, Missouri and Wake Forest, FIU stood out as the place to be for Gaines.
“I wanted to come in and get playing time,” said Gaines. “I didn’t want to come in and sit on the bench, and I know if that I had gone to Florida State, with it being a big school, I really wouldn’t have gotten playing time until junior year probably. Mizzou is too cold for me. It just worked out, coming here. I came down and it felt like the right place. I didn’t have that feeling at any other school.”
Catcher Aramis Garcia from Pembroke Pines, Fla. has shown his worth both at the plate and behind. With a .291 batting average, Garcia has three homers and 18 RBI. “He’s got a good arm behind the plate, he understands the game, he listens intently, swings the bat, throws, bats, catches,” said Thomas. “He’s kind of the whole package, so to speak.” Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 20th round of the 2011 MLB draft, Garcia has a home-to second throwing time that is already above the major league average (1.85-1.95 seconds).
“I’ve been playing baseball since I was three,” said Garcia. “I tried some other sports when I was younger. I tried soccer and football, and when I played soccer I was never any good. And football? Well I wasn’t very good there either. Baseball was the only sport I ever loved.”
As far as the competition goes, it’s a welcome adjustment for Garcia. “The competition has definitely been better, a lot faster [than high school]. I always loved when we played teams that were really good. The competition here is always fun, but it’s definitely the biggest adjustment.”
According to Thomas, “Sometimes dynamite comes in small packages,” and that’s exactly what left fielder Roche Woodard brings to the team. “He runs well, he has a nice arm from the outfield and he’s getting a lot of at-bats. When he walked through the door in August, he had a long way to go. He has improved to the point of playing almost daily. He’s just doing better all the time.”
Woodard is batting an impressive .342 batting average in 38 at-bats. He was named a 2011 Rawlings Florida All-Region Second Team, and was awarded the 2010 Perfect Game USA Underclass High Honorable Mention as an All-American.
Florida International has a record of 3-5 in Sun Belt Conference play, and 13-13 overall. The Panthers take on Florida A&M in Miami this Tuesday and Wednesday at 6 p.m.