Can the Hurricanes meet expectations in final regular season series?

CORAL GABLES, FL - 2021 Miami Hurricanes Baseball vs FAU (Photo by Kevin Ortiz/University of Miami Athletics) Photo credit: Kevin Ortiz/University of Miami Athletics

Maybe a whole year off disrupted the routines of America’s baseball players. Perhaps the college baseball field is stronger, deeper and more competitive than ever before following new pandemic-related NCAA eligibility rules. It’s also possible that the Miami Hurricanes are facing one of baseball’s most consistently rigorous mental challenges, and that what has been seen throughout 2021 was to be expected.

The Canes have had numerous highlights and lowlights this spring. But the whiplash of good and bad performances—often with just mere days of separation between—has rendered any consistency non-existent.

UM (29-17, 17-15 ACC) had its “biggest win of the year” last Sunday against Georgia Tech, according to head coach Gino DiMare. Coming back from four runs down, Miami earned a signature home series win over the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division leader.

But the weekend fireworks fizzled as the Hurricanes came down to earth in a casually nonchalant 3-0 loss to Florida Atlantic on Tuesday night. The loss denied the chance for a perfect season in midweek games as UM mustered just six hits.

“It was kind of anemic tonight,’’ DiMare said. “Couldn’t get anything going. Couldn’t get leadoff hitters on base. When we did get guys on base, or in scoring position, which wasn’t often, we couldn’t capitalize.”

“It’s unfortunate we had to finish this way in our last [home] game…but it’s been that year. Very hard to get it together and keep it rolling. Just when we think we got a little bit going, momentum gets taken back. We need to turn the page again and be ready to go at Louisville.”

Projections and progressions

Miami and Louisville were paired to finish the season as the ACC’s two most likely contenders, with the teams projected preseason to win the Coastal and Atlantic divisions.

Neither side has met those expectations—yet.

While the Cardinals (27-18, 16-13 ACC) are statistically eliminated from passing Notre Dame in the Atlantic, the Hurricanes are still in the Coastal Division pennant race, trailing second-place Pittsburgh on only the head-to-head tiebreaker and first-place Georgia Tech by one and a half games overall. This means that if that the Canes win at least two more games this weekend than the Yellow Jackets against North Carolina, as well as at least one more game than Pitt at Wake Forest, than UM—even despite its inconstancies—will have met its lofty preseason conference expectations.

Southpaw blues

But to even entertain the thoughts of a Coastal Division crown, the Hurricanes will have to answer a constant, pesky question.

Even without statistical splits provided to viewers, Miami has been abundantly less effective at the plate against left-handed pitchers. Some of this is to be expected—only four of UM’s 10 most frequent starting position players stand in the right-handed batter’s box. But the Canes’ no-run performance against six frames of FAU left-handed pitching Tuesday is sobering, considering Louisville is expected to use two lefty starting pitchers in this weekend’s series.

LHP Luke Seed (0-1, 2.66 ERA), RHP Jared Poland (0-0, 2.57 ERA) and LHP Tate Kuehner (4-4, 3.65 ERA) will provide a stern test for Miami’s lineup in the Thursday-Saturday series at Louisville’s Jim Patterson Stadium.

Poland made just his third appearance of ‘21 last weekend at UNC, while Seed and Kuehner combine for just one outing longer than five full frames. This provides the Hurricanes with an opportunity to attack UL’s bullpen, given that their hitters can provide taxing enough at-bats to run up pitch counts.

Doing so against the lefty arms through has proven to be a sticky task for Miami.

“It’s not something we haven’t worked on,” said DiMare, adding that UM’s lefty-heaving coaching staff are often throwing to players in practice.

“The lefties have certainly been an issue. It’s a crazy game because our same lefties hit their freshman year or sophomore years…[lefties] are going to be in our lineup, and the righties need to do a good job [as well].”

Behind enemy lines

Louisville brings high-powered bats to this weekend’s series—pushed back one day due to the impending ACC Tournament. Its 307 total runs are second in the conference, just a single run behind Georgia Tech. The Cardinals hit .286 overall, second as well behind North Carolina State.

Their .378 on-base percentage is tops in the league, and they strike out less than all but two other teams in the ACC.

Catcher Henry Davis leads UL in batting average (.372) and OPS (1.139), with an ACC-leading .493 on-base percentage. Outfielder Luke Brown is hitting .335, Trey Leonard (.331), Cooper Bowman (.304) and Christian Knapczyk (.301) following behind. Alex Binelas leads Louisville with 15 homers and Levi Usher’s 26 stolen bases is first conference-wide.

Other notes

Miami first-year volunteer assistant coach Chris Dominguez returns to his alma mater, where he played third base for the Cards from 2007-09. The Coral Gables native was a third-round pick by the San Francisco Giants in 2009 and spent time in MLB with both the Giants and Cincinnati Reds.

UM was most recently projected by D1 Baseball as a No. 3 seed in the Gainesville NCAA regional, paired with Florida, UNC-Charlotte and Northeastern. New projections are released every week. The Canes have been eliminated from the regional hosting conversation, per NCAA COVID-guidelines of announcing potential host sites in advance of May 31’s tournament selection.

Miami and Louisville will play at 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday before a 1 p.m. series finale Saturday. The ACC Tournament is slated for May 25-30 at Truist Field in Charlotte, N.C.