Hurricanes field youthful squad

The 2002 Miami Hurricane baseball team has its work cut out for itself if they intend to repeat as National Champions.
Following their triumphant victory in Omaha, Neb., site of the College World Series, the Hurricanes lost a school record 13 players to graduation and the Major League Baseball Draft. That number included five position starters and three starting pitchers, forcing this year’s squad to rely on a number of newcomers.
The Hurricanes begin the 2002 season ranked No. 2 in the Baseball Weekly/ESPN Top 25 Coaches Poll. UM coach Jim Morris has put together an extremely difficult schedule that includes many ranked teams.
Miami begins the season on Feb. 1 with a three-game series against No. 25 Tennessee, one of last year’s opponents in the College World Series. No. 4 Florida State, No. 10 Cal State Fullerton, No. 19 Georgia Tech, No. 23 Florida and No. 24 Rutgers all appear on the Hurricanes’ schedule. UM will also take on the likes of Florida Atlantic and Florida International – teams that have always put up a good fight.
“It has been a great off season celebrating our championship,” Morris said. “The party is now over. It is time to tee it up against the toughest schedule in Miami baseball history.”
The Hurricanes return four starting position players, led by shortstop Javy Rodriguez. Rodriguez was not drafted after his junior campaign despite leading the nation with 66 stolen bases and leading the team with a .382 batting average last season.
Junior third baseman Kevin Howard (.336 average in 2001) solidifies the left side of the infield. Kevin Mannix (.328 average in 2001) returns in right field while Danny Matienzo (.324 average and 13 HR in 2001) will move from designated hitter to the catcher spot. These players will try and use their experience to help their younger teammates.
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult to get back to Omaha this year with our lack of experience, but we do have the talent to do so,” Howard said. “Us veterans need to step up as leaders and help ease the younger players’ transition.”
Morris expects at least two freshmen to crack the opening day lineup. Freshmen Paco Figueroa and Joey Hooft are still battling for the starting second base position, with Hooft likely to start against Tennessee. Figueroa’s twin brother, Danny, is the leading candidate for centerfield.
“Every day at practice is an open battle for starting positions,” Morris said. “Our expectations are extremely high, and nobody’s position is safe. It is very important that we have leadership from our older players.”
The starters in left field and first base are being solidified with sophomore Jim Burt and Matt Dryer, respectively. Sophomore Haas Pratt can play at first, but will start at designated hitter.
Morris noted that the team will need to manufacture more runs this season, as the Hurricanes lost a lot of speed and power from their championship run last season.
“We will have to find different ways to win this season,” Matienzo said. “We want to go back to Omaha and win the World Series. Miami has never repeated as National Champions. We have the talent to change that.”
Pitching may be a question mark for the Hurricanes entering the 2002 season, as Miami lost the starting trio of Tom Farmer, Brian Walker and Chris Sheffield. All three were drafted in the first ten rounds of the MLB Draft.
Preseason First-Team All-American Kiki Bengochea (9-4 with a 4.10 ERA in 2001) leads an inexperienced starting rotation that has a lot of potential. Bengochea spent this past summer playing with the USA National Team, totaling a 6-1 record with a 0.61 ERA.
Troy Roberson is back after missing the majority of the last two years following elbow surgery. Roberson was 2-0 with a 1.88 ERA as the Hurricanes No. 2 pitcher in 2000 when he was hurt, and will try and pick up where he left off.
Even while rehabilitating in 2001, Roberson was selected in the 28th round of the Draft by the Texas Rangers
T.J. Prunty, a former quarterback for the football team, shores up the starting rotation. Prunty came out of the bullpen in 2001, accounting for a 1.29 ERA in 11 relief appearances. Despite the loss of last year’s starters, Morris is confident in his 2002 crop.
“Roberson has thrown better than anyone on our staff at this time,” Morris said. “On any given day, our starting pitchers can beat any team in the country.”
The bullpen, one of the most dominant in the nation from 2001, remains mostly in tact, and is led by sophomore closer George Huguet (14 saves, 2.03 ERA). Luke DeBold is the capable set-up man, compiling a 1.74 ERA to go along with his 67-to-7 strikeouts to walk ratio.
The UM bullpen was so good, it helped the ‘Canes to a 48-0 record when they led after six innings last season.
Morris said he feels that being ranked No. 2 puts a lot of pressure on a young team and warned fans to not be surprised if the Hurricanes dip in the rankings early in the season. But preseason rankings mean nothing to Morris and his club. They have only one thing on their minds – Omaha.
“No matter what, our goal is to get back to Omaha and win the College World Series,” Morris said. “The standard has been set at Miami for many years. If you are not back in Omaha, the season is a disappointment.”