Players gathered in the outfield of Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field and started rotating their arms in the air, getting ready for stretches. With smiles on their faces, some of the athletes cracked jokes, while others wrestled each other to catch a baseball that had been thrown seconds before.
The first practice following media day was about to start for the University of Miami, and the team, with many new faces, appeared to jell quite well on the week of its first series of the season.
“How close we are as a team, which is interesting with all the new players,” pre-season All-American Carl Chester said when asked about the team’s biggest strength. “All the guys seem to know their role.”
Two starting pitchers will have brand new, bigger roles in 2017. Junior right-hander Jesse Lepore will go from being the designated midweek starter to the first pitcher in the lineup on Friday night, and first-year Hurricane Jeb Bargfeldt will be the Saturday starter after playing last season at Cisco College in Texas.
New season, new responsibilities, new opportunities.
“We had no idea who was going to take those roles coming into the season,” Chester said. “It was kind of an open slate for everyone.”
Lepore had a successful 2016 campaign, pitching a 2.20 ERA and winning all nine of his starts. He struck out 57 batters and allowed just 18 earned runs. Coming into this season, he had increased his throwing velocity and, according to Coach Jim Morris, had been the best pitcher in the fall – and so far in the spring.
For the majority of the offseason, junior left-hander Michael Mediavilla was expected to be the Friday-night starter on the mound, but Lepore has exceeded expectations.
“He’s always had a great work ethic,” Coach Jim Morris said. “He is locating better and throwing harder. He’s been pitching 93-95 [mph]. He is getting better and better.”
Lepore was part of the Miami team that went to back-to-back College World Series tournaments but did not pitch in either. If the Hurricanes were to make it back to Omaha this year, all signs point to Lepore being one of the main players to rely on for success.
“Especially being in a program like this, it’s such an honor,” Lepore said of being the team’s first starter in the lineup. “Ever since I came here as a freshman, it’s been the goal to work my way up. [It is] a different environment, but ultimately it’s the same game and the same mentality.”
Lepore said that there was some pressure that came with moving to Friday nights, but that the pressure is a good thing. Having high standards actually gives him confidence that he will perform day in and day out, he said.
The journey for Bargfeldt was quite a bit different. The junior left-hander comes from a community college in a compact town.
“It’s a small town – two or three gas stations in Cisco,” Bargfeldt said. “You know everyone. It is kind of the same thing every day. Being able to come out here has broadened my perspective on everything, and I was able to try so many new things that I would have never gotten the opportunity to do if it weren’t for Miami.”
Despite last playing in a small area, he has played in big situations. With a 12-1 individual record, Bargfeldt helped lead his team to the Junior College World Series last year. He has already shown the Hurricanes coaching staff what he can do, earning a starting weekend spot right off the bat.
When asked how he feels going into the first series against Rutgers, Bargfeldt had one word.
“Excited,” Bargfeldt said. “You hear that these are the best fans in college baseball. This is Mark Light magic, and there is so much around it and the community backs it so much. Being able to pitch on Saturday night – I’m so amped up.”
Bargfeldt says he is not feeling any nerves just yet and hopes they stay away.
“Maybe after the first batter, I think I will be settled in,” he said. “I just hope to put my team in a position to win.”
Miami baseball will lean on Bargfeldt and Lepore to do just that this season as the quest for Omaha begins.