Miami hits diamond with youth and hope

After another off-season of wheeling and dealing, the Miami Hurricanes are making their final preparations to begin another season of UM baseball.
The Hurricanes come off a bittersweet playoff experience during which, UM knocked off a heavily favored Florida Gators squad in the regionals only to lose in the final inning of play against the University of South Carolina. The ‘Canes were three outs away from their eighth College World Series appearance in nine years under head coach Jim Morris.
Instead, Miami wound up with a No. 20 ranking when the final polls were released, concluding the team’s worst season under Morris.
This year, the Hurricanes are once again putting on a new face in an attempt to find some consistency.
“Right now we are just going to put things together until we get something that works,” Morris said. “I’ll tell you right now, the lineup that we put out there on Wednesday will not be the same as the lineup we put out at the end of the season.”
Thanks to graduation and the loss of several of Miami’s key players to the major league baseball draft, last year’s young team has become even younger with the departure of key players such as Javy Rodriguez, Kevin Howard, and Danny Matienzo.
The UM pitching staff also lost much of their depth as three of last year’s starters, Kiki Bengochea, Troy Roberson, and T.J. Prunty departed, along with fellow relievers Luke DeBold and Vince Vazquez.
Dan Touchet, who earned the No. 1 spot towards the end of the 2002 season, returns as the ace in Lazer Collazo’s pitching rotation. Brandon Camardese, Vince Bongiovanni, Ryan Dixon, and J.D. Cockroft are left fighting for the remaining spots in the rotation. Cockroft also begins the year as UM’s closer, with George Huguet sidelined thanks to soreness in his throwing elbow.
“George feels fine,” Morris said. “We are holding him back a little just to make sure he is ready to throw in a game situation. He will probably miss about the first three weekend’s of the season.”
To lighten the load on the younger players, Morris dipped into the junior college pool during the off-season, pulling out a nice chunk of experience for the ‘Canes to build on.
“We got some junior college guys from California this season,” Morris said. “These are guys who have two years experience already and they really now how to play the game.”
“The best baseball in the country is played in Florida and California. The weather allows these guys to play in a lot of games during the course of the season and after two years, these guys have more experience than some of the northern guys will get in four years at school.”
Among the newcomers are outfielder Tommy Shannon from Fresno City College, and Adam Ricks, a versatile infielder that can play all positions on the dirt.
Shannon fills a gap in the UM outfield as Jim Burt moves from right field to play first base for Miami. Before attending Miami, Burt played most of his career at first base, as Morris expects him to be defensively sound at the position.
“Burt is a big guy who can save a lot of runs for you at first base, and that certainly adds up over the course of the season,” Morris said. “Kevin Brown did a great job of that when we won the championship in 2001.”
With added experience and a sound defense, the question that remains is where the power will stem from in Miami’s lineup.
“We don’t have a guy who is going to hit a ton of home runs for you,” Morris said. “What we do have is a lot a guys who have the capability of hitting few, and that certainly adds up.
Morris wasn’t concerned with the lack of a true power hitter.
“The Anaheim Angels won the World Series without a real power hitter in their lineup,” Morris said. “If you look at the standings throughout the course of the year, the teams with the heavy hitter in the lineup are not the ones that are on top. We are striving for a balanced offense that is going to pick their spots and hit the gaps.”
One of the guys planning on hitting those gaps is freshman Gabby Sanchez. A Miami native from Brito Private School, Sanchez was drafted out of high school, but chose to go to school instead. Sanchez will take over a spot vacated by Kevin Howard, and many think that the third baseman could easily be the premier player on this year’s squad,
“I asked the players who the best hitter on the team was,” Morris said. “Gabby Sanchez was the favorite. He plays an outstanding first base and has great baseball instincts.”
“He will be starting at third base for us this season, no questions asked.”
Whatever happens on the field remains to be seen, but Morris wasn’t pleased with the team’s pre-season ranking. The ‘Canes were ranked anywhere from 14 to 16 on most polls, but the Baseball America poll excluded UM from the top 25.
“I take offense to it,” Morris said. “We were three outs away from Omaha, and to not even be included in a poll is a shot to this teams pride.”
“We are still Miami and with the amount of success the program has had on a yearly basis, to be overlooked is unbelievable, and it should give our players motivation to get it going this year.”
The Hurricanes will play another tough schedule this season, including three games against Tony Gwynn’s San Diego State squad as well as a weekend series on the road with the Florida Gators. Later in the season, Miami partakes in six straight contests against bitter rival FSU.
Miami opens it all up tomorrow night at 7 PM against Florida International University at Mark Light Field.

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