Thursday, May 31, 2007

NCAA Baseball Preview: Miami-FL

It’s pretty obvious that, while Louisville and Kent State have strong pitching and a few offensive weapons, Miami-FL represents the biggest obstacle standing between Mizzou and their second straight Super Regional. Last year, a 36-21 Hurricane squad travelled to Lincoln for the NCAA Regionals, and blew through three straight games to the Super Regional (and then the CWS). Granted, it helped that they never actually had to face Nebraska, who choked and died before they could even face Miami, but nonetheless...Miami went on the road and came up big.

This year, it’s a 36-22 Miami team making its way to Columbia for the NCAA Regionals (their 35th straight NCAA berth). Last year’s freshman star, Jemile Weeks, is one of many weapons Miami possesses, and though they’ve been a bit unsteady at times this year, you have to figure they’ll be ready to roll this weekend. Here’s their official site. Playing in the ACC, they’ve obviously gotten their fill of competition. On the season, they went 12-13 against NCAA tourney teams (3-0 vs UCLA, 0-3 vs UNC, 1-0 vs Rutgers, 1-2 vs Virginia, 2-2 vs Clemson, 1-2 vs N.C. State, 2-2 vs Florida State, 2-2 vs Wake Forest).

Unlike Louisville and Kent State, Miami’s strength lies in its offense. That’s not to say the pitching staff is totally devoid of talent. Their staff ERA is a decent 4.14, and of their four pitchers who have made at least 10 starts, three of them have an ERA of 3.51 or better. The Hurricanes staff is led by possible Friday night starter, junior lefty Scott Maine (5-5, 3.03 ERA), and freshman lefty Eric Erickson (10-3, 2.00). Their #3 starter—junior righty Enrique Garcia (7-4, 3.51)—is probably the best #3 in the region. The bullpen, led by senior Danny Gil (3-0, 3.68, 5 saves), is solid.

While the Miami offense hasn’t hit for as high an average (.293) as Louisville and Kent State, a) they’ve played a much rougher schedule, b) they get on base at an insane .395 clip, and c) their slugging numbers (.442 SLG, 53 HR’s, 111 2B’s) make them quite dangerous. The lineup is a bit top-heavy, with 5 of the top 6 in the batting order hitting .340 or better and a significant dropoff in the bottom third. But hey, when you have guys like sophomore 1B Yonder Alonso (.377 BA, .520 OBP, .719 SLG, 18 HR’s, 74 RBI’s, 13 SB’s...yikes!) in the middle of your lineup, you can afford a dropoff. Leadoff hitter CF Blake Tekotte (.341/.441/.473, 15 SB’s), is dangerous, but let’s face it—most of the lineup is. The aforementioned Jemile Weeks (.309/.401/.500, 5 HR’s, 5 3B’s) is actually only about the 4th or 5th best hitter on the team.

The Hurricanes’ up-and-down season was pretty accurately defined by their play at the ACC Tournament last weekend. As the conference’s 5-seed, they began play against 4-seed Clemson. Scott Maine pitched a decent 6.2 innings, gave up 3 runs (2 earned) while allowing 10 baserunners, but the score was tied at 3-3 after 9. And after 12. 3B Roger Tomas scored on an Alonso sac fly in the top of the 13th, but Miami reliever John Husey allowed 2 runs in the bottom of the 13th, and Clemson pulled off a 5-4 victory. In their second game of the tournament, Eric Erickson shut down 1-seed Florida State in the losers’ bracket, going 8 innings and allowing 3 runs on just 8 baserunners (Erickson is not a strikeout pitcher, but he does not allow many baserunners). Led by 3 RBI’s from Jemile Weeks (3-for-5 with a triple and 2 runs scored) and catcher Richard O’Brien, Miami pummeled the ‘Noles, 9-3. A win over Wake Forest on 5/26 would possibly send the ‘Canes to the ACC Title Game.

However, a night after hitting Florida State hard, the Miami bats couldn’t get going against the Demon Deacons. Combined with a poor start from Enrique Garcia (4.1 IP, 5 ER, 5 H, 4 BB’s), Wake Forest cruised to a 7-3 win. Weeks had another good game, going 2-for-4 with his 2nd triple in two nights, and O’Brien had another 2 RBI’s, but it never got going for Miami.

As I said at the top, you just have to figure Miami will have its A-game when it lands in Columbia. The Hurricanes are one of the most accomplished teams in NCAA history; they have a couple strong lefties and a solid all-around offense (led by Alonso and his insane stats), and if they can beat Louisville on Friday night, they’ll have quite a solid shot at making the Super Regional.

Go Tigers!