FAU beats FIU, claims Sun Belt Conference title

FAU put on an amazing show while keeping fans’ hearts racing in a 14-10 victory over rival Florida International University that crowned the Owls as Sun Belt Conference champions on Saturday afternoon in Boca.

“These guys never ever gave up,” said head coach John McCormack. “I’m just so proud of them, and they deserve it.”

It was a roller coaster of a game as the lead bounced back and forth between the rivals. The Golden Panthers opened the scoring with a sacrifice fly ball by right fielder Mike Martinez in the top of the second inning.

FIU continued their strides in the second when shortstop Garrett Wittels hit an RBI double to give FIU a 2-0 lead. Wittels’ hit extended his hitting streak to 48 games, making him second all-time in consecutive games with a hit in NCAA baseball history. Robin Ventura holds the current record with 58 hits.

The Owls answered in the bottom of the third as second baseman Raymond Church and right fielder Andy Mee brought runners to the plate giving FAU a 3-2 lead.

On the mound for FAU, starting freshman right-handed pitcher R.J. Alvarez struggled through the sixth inning, giving up a three-run homer to Golden Panthers first baseman Rudy Flores. Alvarez showed his frustration when he walked off the field making an unsportsmanlike gesture to the FIU dugout, which caused slight commotion from both teams.

“Alvarez lost his composure a little bit, which happens to young men in situations like this,” said McCormack. “The umpires restored order, and we calmed down our guy. They calmed down their’s, and we were able to continue the game without incident.”

FIU’s lead was short-lived, as its northern neighbors tied things up 5-5 in the bottom of the sixth with a two-run homer by outfielder Anthony Mesa.

However, the Panthers bounced right back in the top of the seventh as they buried the Owls with outfielder Pablo Bermudez, infielder Raiko Alfanso and Wittels bringing runners home to take an 8-5 lead.

The game seemed to be slipping out of the Owls’ grasp, but they pulled together a massive rally in the bottom of the seventh, starting things off with a three-run homer by left fielder Nathan Pittman to tie the game. Next, Church smacked an RBI single deep into right field giving FAU the lead. Catcher Mike Albaladejo and Mee helped to build on the lead with RBI doubles of their own to give FAU a 12-8 lead.

“Our team always fights back no matter what the circumstances are,” said Mee. “We came out in the seventh and got it done.”

FIU struggled to fight back, gaining only an RBI single from Wittles in the eighth inning and a lead-off home run by Mike Martinez in the ninth. Martinez’s home run came too late, though, as Mee stepped in to close the game for FAU.

The win saw the Owls end their regular season 33-20 (23-9 Sun-Belt) and claim the Sun Belt Conference title for the first time in school history. FAU also won the No. 1 seed in the postseason conference tournament.

“The moment is just surreal,” said Mesa. “We’ve been talking about this since August. To actually go out and do what you said you would do is just unbelievable.”