‘One hell of a team’: Retracing FGCU’s road to fifth regular-season ASUN title

Richie Garcia (15) and the FGCU Eagles celebrate their 10-9 win over Liberty in the regular-season finale at Swanson Stadium on Saturday. The victory gave FGCU its fifth ASUN regular-season title. GREGG HARDY/CSI

BY MATT ROTHMAN
SPECIAL TO CSI

After being picked to finish fourth in the ASUN Preseason Poll, the Florida Gulf Coast University baseball team shocked the conference and won the regular-season championship, 

It’s the fifth regular-season title for the program, as the Eagles improved their record to 34-19 by hanging on for a 10-9 home win over second-place Liberty on Saturday. FGCU will open the ASUN tournament against sixth-seeded host Stetson on Wednesday morning. 

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“They’re special. They’re grinders. There is no Chris Sale. There are no All-Americans. This is one hell of a team,” said Dave Tollett, the only coach in FGCU history, who added, “I don’t think seeding matters in (the tournament). We are just going to go play baseball.”

NOTABLE HITTERS

Keith Stevens: After not getting much playing time last season, Stevens became a mainstay in left field while batting in the middle of the order. He leads the team with a .345 batting average and has hit three home runs and knocked in 28 RBIs. Stevens also has been hit by 16 pitches, which has helped him to boast a .453 on base percentage.

Alex Brait: A junior, Brait has been one of the most looked at Eagles by MLB scouts. He’s played in all 53 games, mainly at catcher, and has four home runs and 30 RBIs. Brait also has helped his pitchers call the game, contributing to an ERA of 3.88 from the weekend starters. 

Jay Hayes: In his final season with the Eagles, Hayes took off. He leads the team in home runs, RBIs, total bases and slugging percentage. His nine homers rank fourth in the ASUN, and he’s driven in 47 runs in 52 games. 

Joe Kinker: Making a splash in his first season with FGCU, Kinker has provided some pop in the middle of the order. He has eight home runs and 38 RBIs to rank third on the team behind Hayes and Kohl Gilmore. He is fourth on the team in hitting at .318.

Richie Garcia: Also being looked at by many professional scouts, Garcia has had a third straight phenomenal season with the Eagles after joining them as a walk-on freshman. He hit four of his six home runs in ASUN play and produced 29 RBIs while batting in both the middle of the order as well as leadoff down the stretch. He started every game either at third or second base. 

NOTABLE PITCHERS

Evan Lumbert delivers against Liberty during the regular-season finale. GREGG HARDY/CSI

Mason Studstill: Arriving at FGCU after one season with Miami and one year in JUCO, Studstill finished the regular season with the ASUNS’s second best ERA (2.31). He pitched at least seven innings on five occasions while recording a 5-2 record. Studstill struck out 91 batters in 81 2/3 innings and will likely be penciled in to start the ASUN tourney opener. 

Hunter McGarry: In just one season after transferring to FGCU, McGarry is already tied for fifth all-time in saves (10) by an Eagle. Tollett has had no problems bringing him in early to close out a game. McGarry is 5-1 with a 2.57 ERA and could potentially start a game should the Eagles need him in the conference tournament. 

Evan Lumbert: Beginning the year as FGCU’s mid-week starter, Lumbert became a starter after some shifting in the rotation. He has a 6-2 record with a 3.60 ERA. The Eagles have won six of the seven conference games he’s started, including a contest against NJIT when he worked into the ninth inning.

Nikolas Bitner: Starting the year as the opening day starter, Bitner transitioned to the bullpen as a guy who can throw multiple innings. In 44 2/3 innings pitched, he has allowed 16 earned runs while striking out more than a batter per inning. Bitner also has one save this season. 

Tyler Shuck: Coming into the season as a reliever, Shuck got off to a strong start backing up Brenden Heiss in the bullpen while also earning himself a couple of starts. His seven wins lead the team, and he went 15 innings to start the season without giving up an earned run. 

MEMORABLE GAMES

Bethune-Cookman (Feb. 16): After dropping the season opener to the Wildcats, FGCU pounded them in a 23-3 home win. Shuck threw five scoreless innings in relief to earn the win, and FGCU hit five home runs, including two from Hayes and one from Barron Collier High School graduate Marc Coffers.

Florida (March 6): Facing the nation’s fifth-ranked team in Gainesville a day after being shut out 15-0, Lumbert took a perfect game into the seventh inning. The Eagles jumped out to a 7-0 lead before McGarry came out of the bullpen to pitch the final two innings in a 7-2 victory. 

Quinnipiac (March 9): In a game that the Eagles trailed 5-0 after two innings and 8-5 heading into the bottom of the eighth, Kinker had his first signature moment with FGCU. His game-winning home run helped the Eagles pick up a series win over Quinnipiac. McGarry got the game’s final out to register his first save of the season. 

Rutgers: (March 15): Less than a week after his game-winning grand slam, Kinker once again had the game-winner, this time with a walk-off three-run blast in the bottom of the 11th inning. FGCU’s bullpen threw six scoreless innings after Lumbert allowed one run over the first five. 

Liberty (May 18): It took until the final game of the season for the Eagles to clinch the ASUN regular-season title, but the Eagles earned a hard-fought 10-9 home win over Liberty. FGCU jumped out to a 10-3 lead on home runs from Garcia, Hayes and Kinker. McGarry recorded the final out on a 3-2 breaking ball to secure the top seed in the tournament.