As opening day at Alex Rodriguez Park gets closer, the optimism among this year’s Hurricanes baseball squad keeps rising.
Miami, ranked No. 13 in the nation by the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 poll, is just over one week away from kicking off its home opener against Rutgers next Friday. Although the Canes are coming off a year in which seven players left for the MLB, there is hope that this year’s team can be the first in four years to make it back to Omaha.
“The excitement level is really high, especially since we’re so close to the season,” said starting pitcher Eric Erickson, who returns to the team after two years of recovery from Tommy John surgery. “The team looks great, everyone is feeling good. We’re all ready to play.”
Erickson’s return to the team was a major headline for the Hurricanes during the offseason. Before his surgery in 2009, he recorded 19 wins in his first two seasons as a starter and is the only member on the roster who has played in the College World Series.
“I hope to be one of the best pitchers in the country. That’s what I’m working for and that’s what I know I’m capable of,” he said. “We’re all on the same mission, and that’s to go to the World Series and win a national championship. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why we’re here.”
Head coach Jim Morris, now in his 19th season leading the Canes, sees Erickson as someone who has come a long way since the injury.
“He’s matured a lot. I’m sure at times he thought his career was over with after two arm surgeries,” he said.
The other big addition this offseason was the arrival of catcher Peter O’Brien. After spending his first three years at Bethune-Cookman, where he led the team in his junior year hitting .304 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs, O’Brien transferred to Miami. He will be able to play after a long, drawn-out waiver process was cleared up with the NCAA.
O’Brien is expected to bring an offensive surge to the lineup, something that was lacking last season at the catcher position.
“I’m extremely excited that I’m close to home,” he said. “We have a great team here. Growing up here and coming to all the games as a kid, it’s an honor to be able to play here.”
Even with the two huge additions, however, some questions still remain with this year’s team. Morris mentioned that the big issue that will need to be settled is the bullpen rotation.
Junior E.J. Encinosa, who last season was a weekend starter, will be moved to the closer role.
“He did really well as a freshman out of the bullpen. He was a freshman All-American,” Morris said of Encinosa. “His sophomore year he struggled in the starting rotation so we’re putting him back in the bullpen. Hopefully that will be something that will get him going again. It’s something we need. You have to have a good closer or you’re not going very far in my opinion.”
Although O’Brien is expected to bring power to the lineup, with so many new faces, the team’s offensive production will also be a question mark early in the season. Morris realizes this, and noted the importance of having such an established rotation early on.
“We’ve got some pretty good guys [in the rotation],” he said. “That’s important for us because we’re not going to score that many runs, I don’t think, early on because we’re starting a lot of new guys in a lot of new positions.”
With all the questions still floating around, it remains to be seen if this team will be the one to take the Hurricanes back to the College World Series for the first time since 2008. Still, it’s a goal that Morris feels his team can accomplish.
“A lot of these guys don’t know where Omaha is,” he joked. “We haven’t been going there a lot lately. We went 11 out of my first 15 years, but one out of my last five. As a coach, I always feel like you want to feel like you have a chance to get to Omaha if you play well. I think this club has a chance.”
The team will hold its annual Fanfest and Alumni Game this weekend at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field. The events will begin at 3 p.m. and are free to the public.