As the baseball team prepared for the first day of spring practice Friday afternoon at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field, players were mingling in the dugout, hitting in the batting cages and taking ground balls without the request of coaches before stretching and warming up.
It was a sign that this team has learned from last year’s mistakes.
After a disappointing 16-5 loss in the NCAA Gainesville Regional against the Florida Gators, the Hurricanes deemed that team chemistry issues were the culprit of the team’s early exit in the postseason.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how important chemistry is, but there’s no question in my mind now that it is very important,” 17th year head coach Jim Morris said. “I think we are going to be more athletic this year. We are excited about the attitude of this team.”
Junior left-handed pitcher Chris Hernandez is one of the veterans who is taking on the leadership role.
“We can be really good,” he said. “I think we can be young and fresh, but still old enough to guide the new guys, help them get ready to go and beat the best teams out there.”
There are six ACC teams ranked in the top 20, and the Hurricanes have been tabbed as high as No. 12 in the preseason polls.
Pitching coach and recruiting coordinator JD Arteaga stressed the importance of being athletic and having good team camaraderie.
“We have six guys who can run the 60-yard dash in under 6.7 [seconds],” he said. “We worked harder in the fall than we did in the previous years. If they suffer together, they come together, then they play together. There will be some adversity throughout the season and the way they handle that will determine how far we go this season.”
This Hurricanes squad features 14 newcomers, but the biggest addition to the team will be redshirt junior Eric Erickson who returns after missing all of last year because of Tommy John surgery. Together with Hernandez, they can make a dynamic duo every Friday and Saturday night.
“I don’t really want to brag about anything, but it looks like a good one-two punch,” Hernandez said. “Erickson always comes through big for us. He’s a good pitcher and we want to go out there and win. That one-two punch is pretty good.”
Hernandez and Erickson are a combined 37-10 in four seasons with the orange and green.
“It’s a huge strength to have [them] at the top of the rotation,” Arteaga said. “Both guys are capable of winning 10 games.”
Another key factor this year will be filling the big shoes of former All-American closer Kyle Bellamy. Bellamy led the ACC in saves with 16 and had an ERA under 1.00. This year, senior right-hander David Gutierrez will take the mound in the ninth inning.
“I told Coach [Morris] that I would do anything to help the team, and he wanted me to close, and I’m all for it,” Gutierrez said. “My freshman year I was a set-up man and I liked it. I liked coming out of the bullpen. I’m a senior now and I kind of like the pressure of being in the game in a crucial situation.”
The biggest surprise on defense was second team All-ACC selection and reigning team MVP senior Scott Lawson who has been splitting time at both second and first base. The Hurricanes’ two biggest offensive weapons will be junior catcher Yasmani Grandal and sophomore third baseman Harold Martinez. Grandal is a preseason All-American and Martinez has been working on driving the ball opposite field.
Miami’s biggest area of concern is its pitching depth. According to Grandal and Arteaga, left-handers Steven Ewing and Jerad Grundy as well as right-hander Eric Whaley are the freshmen who have shown the most promise.
“We have eight left-handers and nine right-handers,” Arteaga said. “We have a lot of options, and that’s what you need to win in May and June.”
Justin Antweil may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.