Miami breaks from conference play, but reaches a critical juncture with Appalachian State

Alex McFarlane will be making his first weekend start on Friday night against Appalachian State.
Alex McFarlane will be making his first weekend start on Friday night against Appalachian State. Photo credit: Treasure Wilson

The Miami Hurricanes have lost two consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference series, against North Carolina and Boston College, and have dropped four of their past seven overall matchups.

For a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation early in the season by major outlet Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, this is a disappointing stretch. And one that could prove costly come NCAA Tournament selection time.

So what has gone south since February, how can UM respond, and what remains uncertain in an uncharted season for the sport?

Inconsistency and struggles

The Canes (24-15, 15-14) have had no void of highs and lows in 2021. But the highs have been high, and the lows have been low.

Miami made waves on opening weekend when they went into Gainesville, Fla. and took two of three games from the consensus preseason No. 1 Florida Gators. In what looked like a coup d’etat in the world of college baseball, UM’s first series win over UF since 2014 immediately set expectations that have yet to be met in what has been a roller coaster of a season for the Hurricanes.

Series sweeps over Wake Forest (two games), Duke and Clemson have been overshadowed by getting embarrassingly swept by Pittsburgh and rival Florida State. Other series losses at the hands of Virginia Tech, UNC and BC have also eliminated Miami’s hopes of hanging at the top of the polls. In fact, UM now sits outside the national top 25 altogether, in spite of going a combined 7-0 against non-league midweek opposition.

Box score blues

Much of Miami’s disappointment can simply be explained by the statsheet. The Hurricanes are led by a veteran core, one that boasts plenty of collective highlights over head coach Gino DiMare’s three-year tenure in Coral Gables. Third-year catcher Adrian Del Castillo is a projected first-round prospect in July’s Major League Baseball Draft, with an armada of fellow future professional players joining him in the everyday lineup.

Del Castillo’s batting average however has dipped below .300 after last Sunday’s loss at Boston College. While his older brother Christian is batting .365, no other Cane has an average above .290.

Slugger and April 19 ACC Player of the Week Alex Toral is 5-24 in his past seven games and freshman Yohandy Morales is 5-28 during the same stretch.

On the mound, the Hurricanes have also yet to find their ideal weekend rotation, with previous starters Alejandro Rosario and Victor Mederos seeing their ERAs elevate to 6.56 and 5.77 respectively. Eight UM arms have been given starts in hopes of finding the right throwing combination.

This weekend’s three-game set against Appalachian State—the annual late-season, non-conference series held during final exams—will be the sixth series in the last seven to feature a starting pitching change. Miami will use Alex McFarlane (2-0, 2.74 ERA), Jake Smith (1-0, 4.12 ERA) and Jake Garland (5-2, 5.07 ERA) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively.

While McFarlane is coming off a shutout start at Boston College and Smith most recently having allowed no runs against Florida Gulf Coast, Garland allowed seven earned runs in one and 2/3 frames pitched in the rubber match at BC.

UM will also have to keep getting Carson Palmquist’s best. The sidearmed southpaw closer and Stopper of the Year candidate has been Miami’s consistent bright spot this season, having 10 saves in 11 save situations with a 1.71 ERA and a team-best 0.60 WHIP among qualifying players.

Tournament Bubble?

While hosting a regional or earning a national seed were the Hurricanes’ goals before the season, simply being invited to an NCAA regional is now what Miami must chase. But with just 10 matchups remaining, UM is left guessing where or even if they sit in the 64-team field.

The latest D1 Baseball projections slated the Canes as a No. 3 regional seed (each regional hosts four teams).

Miami is just one game above .500 in ACC play. For reference, the Canes were 16-13 in conference in both 2017 and 2018 and missed the NCAA Tournament, and 18-12 in 2019 when they were placed in the Starkville regional. But UM has been significantly better in non-conference contests though in 2021 than in each of its past three full-seasons, and also currently has an RPI of No. 20 (The Hurricanes had a No. 41 RPI in ‘17, a No. 64 RPI in ‘18 and a No. 17 RPI in ‘19).

But precedents also mean less in an unprecedented season.

Due to COVID, some conferences have changed the number of overall and conference and non-conference games played. And across each conference, these figures are inconsistent. Could ACC teams suffer from playing six additional league matchups and fewer con-conference tilts?

Or will the selection committee reward the conference’s members for playing stronger schedules?

Regional and super regional hosting is also being handled differently. The top 16 and eight overall teams are normally rewarded with the rights to play the two postseason rounds on their home diamonds. But with the pandemic, tournament host sites are to be determined before the regular season’s conclusion.

That begs the question on whether sites will be determined fully on merit (merit is expected to be at least a partial factor), or whether a program selected to host may simultaneously have to travel to another team’s regional while four other teams play in their own ballpark.

Though all the uncertainties, UM can only control its on-field product at this stage. And it’ll look to show that this weekend with 7 p.m. games on Friday and Saturday before a 1 p.m. series finale Sunday vs. App State at Mark Light Field.

The Canes will stay home for their next conference series, May 14-16 against Georgia Tech before wrapping up the homestand against Florida Atlantic on May 18. Miami then travels to Louisville May 20-22 before the ACC Tournament May 25-30.

The season is far from over, but the Hurricanes need to take advantage of their home stretch to be promised June baseball.