If the baseball team makes a second consecutive trip to Omaha for the College World Series, they can thank their veteran pitching staff for leading them there.
After advancing to the Series last May, the Hurricanes enter the 2004 season with high expectations and national attention. The main reason for the preseason hype is the return of all three of the ‘Canes’ starters: J.D. Cockroft, Vince Bongiovanni, and Brandon Camardese. The Hurricanes will be further boosted by the comeback of former No. 1 starter Dan Touchet, who missed most of last season following elbow surgery.
When Touchet went down last season, Cockroft was taken out of the bullpen and named the top starter for the Hurricanes. Head Coach Jim Morris’s gamble was proven right by Cockroft’s 11-3 record and 2.72 earned run average.
Cockroft said that the sudden change in roles did not affect him very much.
“The transition from the bullpen wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be because I feel like relieving is tougher than starting,” Cockroft said.
Cockroft came through with several clutch performances, including a 1-0 victory over Florida Atlantic in the Regionals.
“J.D. did pretty much a perfect job [in the No. 1 spot],” Touchet said. “He just did whatever we needed….the transition [from reliever to starter] went smoothly.”
This season, Cockroft will be asked to set the tone for the rest of the rotation by winning the opening games of each series, starting with Friday’s match-up with the Florida Gators.
Cockroft said that being asked to face every team’s top starter is no bargain.
“Starting on Fridays is tough because you have to set the pace for the rest of the series. Everybody follows you, so you have to get off to a good start,” he said.
Bongiovanni will follow Cockroft in the rotation. The junior throws a fastball that consistently reaches the high 80’s and uses a nasty breaking ball as a strikeout pitch.
Bongiovanni has battled through the off-season workouts with only one thing on his mind.
“The experience in Omaha was unbelievable,” Bongiovanni said. “I mean, pitching in front of that many people was amazing. We want to get back there.”
As for Camardese, the junior was sometimes criticized for giving up big innings, despite finishing the regular season with a 9-2 record. The southpaw said that he has worked hard to avoid mental breakdowns this season.
“I’ve just worked on locating my pitches better, being able to spot them with ease,” he said. “Last year I left too many pitches over the middle.”
Morris said he let each pitcher know where they were at coming into the season.
“With J.D. we’re looking for him to probably repeat – I mean, he pitched so well last year…Brandon has to be more consistent. He seems to have lapses one inning out of four or five…Bongie’s just got to throw strikes and work on his breaking stuff,” he said.
The past year has been a trying one for Touchet, however, as the senior had to watch his teammates play in Omaha while recovering from season-ending elbow surgery.
Touchet said he is ready to earn back the No. 1 spot in the rotation that he lost when he was hurt.
“That was the toughest thing, to watch them go out there [in Omaha],” Touchet said. “Of course, I wanted them to do well, but I haven’t been to Omaha yet. That was where I wanted to be that year. I definitely want to be back in the No. 1 spot and lead this team to Omaha.”
Before the injury, Touchet was 2-0 with a 1.93 earned run average in three starts. Morris was quick to point out that the Hurricanes still have Touchet in their immediate plans.
“We feel like he is one of our top guys, but we just want to be careful with him and take him along slowly. When he gets ready then we’ll get him in there,” Morris said.
Cockroft said that the first two series against Florida and Tennessee will serve as a litmus test for the ‘Canes.
“The first two series will be a defining point of where we are at as a team and what we need to work on individually,” he said.
The Hurricanes will begin their regular season tonight at 7 p.m. at Mark Light Field against Florida.
Eric Kalis can be contacted at email@example.com.