Florida Atlantic rides four-run first inning to 5-4 win over Miami

BOCA RATON — Florida Atlantic scored four early runs and, with help from a hot bullpen, kept a dangerous Miami Hurricanes offense from coming back in a 5-4 win on Wednesday night.

Winning for the sixth time in seven games, FAU (6-1) jumped out to a hot start against the Hurricanes (3-5), batting around in the first inning. Junior shortstop Tyler Frank led off with a double, his fifth hit in nine at-bats since moving to the leadoff spot on Saturday, and finished with his third multi-hit performance in as many games.

“It’s what you dream of, playing in front of crowds like this,” Frank said of a night on which FAU attracted nearly 1,900 fans. “In front of your university, students, it’s awesome. It’s a good time.”

Sophomore Nick Prather pitched four innings, allowing four hits and three runs while recording four strikeouts. Throwing only 63 pitches, Prather is the only Owls starter this season to have fewer than 10 total innings pitched.

“As he matures, he’s gonna get better because his delivery has a lot of stuff in it,” Owls coach John McCormack said. “Guys that physically aren’t mature yet have a hard time repeating that type of delivery. I think he’s gotta continue to work on his mechanics and physical conditioning.”

Relievers Jordan Poore, Blake Sanderson and Weston Clemente held the Hurricanes to one run before Miami loaded the bases with no outs in the 8th. Drew Peden proceeded to strike out two then induce a lineout to end the threat.

Miami again threatened to tie things at 5 in the ninth, but a lineout to second baseman Eric Rivera gave the Owls their first win in four games against the Hurricanes.

FAU improved to 7-18 against Miami under McCormack, an impressive improvement from the 7-54 record the Owls had against the Hurricanes prior to 2009.

Morris honored: McCormack announced shortly before first pitch that FAU would be giving longtime Hurricanes coach Jim Morris a week-long, expenses paid stay at the Boca Resort. Morris will be retiring following this season after 27 years and nearly 1,100 wins with the Hurricanes.

“He was ahead of the curve and he knows what he’s doing,” McCormack said. “I wanted to do it for me, for our fans and for him.”

FAU baseball prepares for annual home showdown with Miami Hurricanes

Manager John McCormack speaking during the Owls’ media day event. (Jake Elman for The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — Florida Atlantic baseball players are happy to have won six of their first seven games to begin the 2018 season. But even with Conference USA play still weeks away, there’s one annual game that the Owls have had circled on their calendars.

FAU (6-1) will welcome the rival Miami Hurricanes (3-4) to Boca Raton for the first of three games the teams will play this season. Miami will later host the Owls on March 21 and April 4.

Despite never playing in the same conference, these two teams have plenty of experience against each other, with Miami dominating the overall series 62-14. FAU has at least made things closer against under current head coach John McCormack, going 6-18 since 2009 and even upsetting the then-No. 1 Hurricanes in April 2016. Miami swept all three games against FAU last season, outscoring the Owls 20-8.

“That will be a good experience, (against a) historic program,” FAU third baseman Joe Montes said. “(It will be my) first time playing them so we’ll see how it goes.”

McCormack said he will start sophomore Nick Prather against the Hurricanes and did not consider starting Owls ace and usual Friday night pitcher Jake Miednik (Stoneman-Douglas). Miednik ranks eighth in the country with 21 strikeouts following a 14-strikeout gem against Delaware on Friday night.

As FAU will play a rare four-game series in Oregon against the Ducks from Friday to Monday, McCormack wanted to keep his pitchers in a routine and has yet to decide who will start the final game out West.

“The way it falls is the way it falls,” McCormack said.

Owls shortstop Tyler Frank, having played Miami five times in two years, is approaching the rivalry like any other game. Frank had only two hits in 12 at-bats against the Hurricanes last season.

“We want to go in there, get a W and move forward into Oregon,” Frank said.

Frank finding his footing: After an unexpected rough start to his junior season, Frank seems to be settling in, raising his average from .055 Friday night to a more-acceptable .192 by the end of Sunday. McCormack originally considered giving Frank a day off to clear his mind, but instead moved his star shortstop from the No. 2 hole back to the leadoff spot, where Frank hit most of last season.

In his two games hitting leadoff this year, Frank has gone 4-for-8 with a walk. Frank remains homerless after hitting 11 last season, while the Owls only have three total.

“You always want to succeed and help your team any way you can,” Frank said after Sunday’s win. “Just trying to do less. Less is more sometimes and just being relaxed.”

McCormack said Frank will continue to hit leadoff for the time being. Montes, who began the year hitting leadoff, had two hits and three RBIs in the two hole on Saturday.

Miednik honoredFAU has its first C-USA honoree of the regular season, with left-hander Jake Miednik being named Pitcher of the Week by conference media members. Miednik, a preseason All-CUSA pitcher, recorded 14 strikeouts in Friday’s 6-2 win over the Blue Hens and is tied with teammate Kyle Marman for second in the conference with 21 strikeouts. Only Southern Mississippi junior Nick Sandlin has more, with 23 punchouts in 14 innings.

Five storylines to watch as Florida Atlantic baseball aims to rebound from 2017 season

FAU Stadium (Courtesy of FAUsports.com)

BOCA RATON — Led by junior shortstop Tyler Frank (Delray-American Heritage) and outfielder David Miranda, the Florida Atlantic Owls baseball team is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2017 season; disappointing, at least, by the program’s standard.

Despite being the No. 3 seed in the Conference USA tournament, FAU narrowly missed out on the NCAA Tournament and a chance to compete for the College World Series. FAU will begin its season Friday night (6:30 p.m., FAU Baseball Stadium) against George Washington University.

“I really like our team — the make-up of this team is really good,” Owls coach John McCormack said this week. “To have pieces of the puzzle in terms of pitchers and catchers and infielders, it’s extremely important to have talented guys, but the makeup of this team … they care about each other and care about representing Florida Atlantic.”

Here are five storylines to watch as the Owls try to return to the NCAA Tournament and re-establish themselves as C-USA heavyweights.

Miranda looks to build off powerful 2017: 

With most of the team’s offense suffering from inconsistency last season, Miranda stepped up to lead the Owls with 12 home runs, 51 RBIs and a .590 slugging percentage — and is only back for his senior year because he went undrafted in last June’s MLB Draft. Named to the All-Conference USA Preseason Team last month, a leaner, fitter Miranda will be expected to improve on last year’s numbers in an effort to show MLB teams he’s worth drafting.

“We see FAU baseball as legit, and we win every year,” Miranda said. “We don’t put any pressure on ourselves. We expect ourselves to do what we do every year. … In baseball, you can’t put pressure like that, just show up and be like, ‘I gotta hit. I hit 12 [home runs] last year so I gotta hit 20 this year.”

Can rotation newcomers step up? 

Though junior Kyle Marman made two starts last season in his 20 appearances, left-hander Jake Miednik (Parkland-Douglas) is the only full-time starting pitcher returning. After winning seven games and leading the Owls with 75 strikeouts last season, Miednik will step into the ace role vacated by current Houston Astros farmhand Alex House. Transfer Vince Coletti (Palm Beach State) will start Sunday’s game and sophomore Nick Prather, who pitched 11 games in relief last year, will fill out the rotation.

Nick Swan and Marc Stewart, who started a combined 12 games last season, will begin the season in the bullpen.

Will Rivera, Pages avoid sophomore slump? 

FAU is hoping it has a duo of the future in outfielder-turned-second baseman Eric Rivera and catcher Pedro Pages, but both will have to improve on solid freshman campaigns. A Conference USA All-Freshman outfielder, Rivera hit .256 with 13 doubles, six home runs and 31 RBIs and led the team with five outfield assists. He will spend the 2018 season at second base as Stephen Kerr’s replacement.

Pages hit .243 with four homers and 24 RBI, drawing 17 walks to just 22 strikeouts as a freshman. With fifth-year senior Kevin Abraham likely to play more of a DH role, Pages will be expected to catch the majority of the time.

Old-school baseball: 

FAU may try to play a game or two at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches again, but don’t expect the Owls to replicate the Houston Astros’ sabermetric-driven efforts. McCormack said that between the team not having any of the more advanced equipment and FAU playing far fewer games than the 162 a big-league team plays, the Owls will continue to rely more on traditional stats — though some advanced stats, such as where players hit the ball and how opposing pitchers work in certain situations, will be involved in game-planning.

“When you’re playing Central Florida and you’ve got 43 at-bats on the guy, I don’t know if the statistics show up the same [as opposed to a major-league veteran],” McCormack said. “I think it’s really difficult in college with a small sample size.”

How high is Tyler Frank’s ceiling? 

Given that Frank was named to the Golden Spikes Watchlist and could play his way into becoming a first-round pick in June’s MLB Draft, the junior shortstop is easily the most valuable player on this year’s team. Look for Frank to build off a brilliant sophomore season and, like another former Stallion in Owls running back Devin Singletary, perhaps be named Conference USA’s Player of the Year this spring.

Noteworthy: In wake of Wednesday’s mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, FAU will be adding advanced security elements to baseball games this season, including metal detectors and increased police presence.

Former American Heritage shortstop Tyler Frank embracing stardom, pressure at FAU

Tyler Frank (Jake Elman / The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — Through his first two seasons at Florida Atlantic, rising-junior shortstop Tyler Frank (American Heritage-Delray) has seemingly accomplished everything on his to-do list.

Make All-Conference USA first team? Check. Dominate in his backyard, star for the Owls and raise his MLB Draft stock? Check. Frank even became the first Owl in a decade to be named to the Golden Spikes Award preseason watchlist last month.

With Frank potentially entering his final season in Boca Raton before MLB teams come calling in June’s draft, the shortstop-turned-catcher-turned-shortstop again is trying to focus on returning to the NCAA Tournament.

“We have a great team atmosphere and the focus is always on what can you do for the guy beside you,” Frank said Monday, four days before the Owls begin their season against George Washington (6:30 p.m., FAU Baseball Stadium). “What can you do for the organization of FAU? We’re always trying to win and we have some things to do compared to last year when we didn’t.”

Much like another FAU athlete, All-American running back Devin Singletary, Frank has become a national star since graduating from American Heritage in Delray. A .448 hitter for the Stallions, Frank was named to the Class 4A all-state baseball team following his senior year in 2015. Frank also shares a soft-spoken, humble attitude with Singletary, who ran for an FBS-high 32 touchdowns this past season.

In part because of Singletary and the football team’s success, the baseball program is operating under the idea, too, that more eyes are on them.

“Having good athletes around the university and having good coaches and winning? Of course we love it,” Frank said. “We’re ready to take on our season now and show them what we got. … We’ve kind of established and accomplished ourselves for a very long time now.”

After hitting .285 with a solo home run as a freshman, Frank broke out last season to slash .336/.448/.540 as a true sophomore, hitting 11 home runs and posting more walks (41) than strikeouts (29), not to mention six stolen bases and 15 doubles. Frank was named first-team All-Conference USA en route to earning a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.

“The whole is probably better than the sum of the parts,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “Him as a baseball player, if you’ve graded out the tools, they’re certainly good. But he exceeds that with his desire and willingness to do anything for the team.”

Added reliever and team captain Weston Clemente: “He’s pretty funny and he’s really good at what he does. … He’s definitely matured a little bit. Obviously he’s getting stronger and faster as much as he can. He’s starting to mature a lot.”

MLB scouts have already begun attending FAU’s early practices to scout Frank, who will be eligible for the first time since high school to be drafted by an MLB organization. With a strong junior season, Frank can potentially surpass his former mentor, shortstop C.J. Chatham, as the highest-drafted player in program history. Chatham was the 51st overall pick by the Boston Red Sox in 2016 and reached A-level ball last season.

“As many accolades as he’s gotten, he really defers it to the team,” McCormack said. “He doesn’t see it in that light. It’s nice for him and the team, but the one thing is you wouldn’t know it.”