Baseball returns to CWS and builds for next year

It was only a matter of time before the UM baseball squad returned to Omaha.
After a 34-29 campaign in 2002, which was the worst mark in Jim Morris’s coaching career in Coral Gables, the Miami Hurricanes turned things around with a 45-17-1 mark and a fifth place finish in the College World Series. The ‘Canes were able to amass that record with a starting lineup featuring only one player with previous CWS experience, and without their No. 1 pitcher in the starting rotation.
Although there were many positives to reflect on over the past five months, Morris was still disappointed in the way things turned out.
“We had as good of an opportunity as anyone else[in Omaha],” Morris said. “So it’s a disappointing feeling to come back early.”
The Hurricanes succeeded on having better team chemistry in the 2003 season, as the collective groups of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors were able to jell together. However, the ‘Canes probably wouldn’t have made the trip to Rosenblatt Stadium without the clutch hitting of freshman Ryan Braun. In addition to playing at four different positions this season, Braun led Miami in the three major hitting categories, sporting a .364 average with 17 home runs and 74 RBI’s.
Braun’s biggest highlight of his freshman year likely came in the first game of the Coral Gables Super Regionals, in which the Granada Hills native belted a walk-off homer to give Miami a 10-9 victory.
“I pride myself in those situations,” Braun said after the game. “I expect myself to come through in clutch situations.”
Braun was named Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year, while fellow frosh Gaby Sanchez earned second-team all-freshman honors. Immediately taking over the third base duties after the departure of Kevin Howard. Sanchez became one of Miami’s most consistent hitters, ending the year with a .328 average, while placing second on the ‘Canes with 56 RBI’s.
The biggest improvement may have come from catcher Eric San Pedro. The sophomore continued to provide the Hurricanes with stellar defense, but also hit .317 this season, a batting average that was up an even 100 points from a year ago. San Pedro attributes the improvement to a new attitude at the plate.
“Last season I worked out a lot, and I’ve calmed down in my approach of swinging the bat,” San Pedro said. “I’ve been more patient seeing the ball and I’ve been trying to hit the ball to right field.”
The pitching rotation appeared to suffer a major blow in late February, when ace Dan Touchet underwent Tommy John surgery, ending his season. However, Morris immediately called on the services of left-hander J.D. Cockroft, and the junior came out of the bullpen to post an 11-3 record, with a 2.71 ERA.
Cockroft accomplished all those numbers with the aid of a change-up that goes as slow as 55 MPH.
“J.D. throws two speeds,” Morris told the Sun-Sentinel. “Slow and slower.”
Although the bullpen was the shakiest aspect of the Hurricanes, junior George Huguet rebounded from a dismal ending to the 2002 season to record eight saves with a 2.37 ERA. Sophomore Shaun Valdes-Fauli, who became the closer after Huguet injured his hand in May, gave Miami quality multiple-inning efforts out of the pen, finishing with just a 3.19 ERA.
The good news for the Hurricanes is that every player from the 2003 season is eligible to return, and with the possible exception of first baseman Jim Burt, the entire staring lineup and pitching rotation will be back. As always, UM will bring in a first-rate freshman and junior college class for 2004, but Morris says that those players time will come at a later date.
“We expect to win next year, and to do it with the players on the roster right now.” Morris said.