University of Miami players still remember walking into TD Ameritrade Park at the opening of the 2015 College World Series.
The roar of more than 25,000 college baseball fans filled the stadium. The rush of playing on the biggest stage of their early baseball careers was aweing.
And then, after three games, it was over.
The Hurricanes went 1-2 in the opening round of last year’s College World Series, with both losses coming to the University of Florida.
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In the two losses, Miami pitchers gave up 25 runs, 24 hits and Miami’s chance at its first national title since 2001.
“It was a tough way to go out … to have those two horrible games up there,” closer Bryan Garcia said.
Now, with the experience of playing in front of the crowd and the memory of the early exit still lingering, the Hurricanes are looking for redemption.
And though the No. 3 national seed Miami baseball team made headlines this season for its ability to grind out wins — the theatrics, the come-from-behind victories, the bat flips, the web-gem defensive plays — UM veteran coach Jim Morris knows his team has succeeded mostly because the under-the-radar pitching staff came through when it mattered the most.
“Pitching’s the name of the game,” Morris said.
When the Hurricanes (50-12) open their 25th trip to the College World Series at 8 p.m. Saturday against Arizona (44-21), Morris will be looking for his pitchers to come in clutch again as Miami attempts to leave Omaha, Nebraska, with the title.
For Morris, the pitching staff starts with the bullpen.
As important as it is to create a steady rotation of starters and build quality innings at the onset of a game, being able to punch a game out and stop a team cold in its tracks late is invaluable.
But to pitching coach J.D. Arteaga, everyone walks in as a starter.
When Arteaga’s on the recruiting trail, all of the top prospects who have a chance to play at the college level and potentially in the majors open on the mound at the prep level.
“They pick up their role once they come into college,” Arteaga said.
Whatever that role may become — from the Friday-night starter to the situational reliever — Arteaga looks for three distinct qualities when assembling his staff: He has to throw strikes. He has to be confident in more than just his fastball. And he has to learn how to keep his emotions in check even in tough situations.
“You can teach him curveballs and sliders and everything else,” Arteaga said, “but competitiveness is the No. 1 thing that I look for.”
There’s evidence of that competitiveness on UM’s staff.
Exhibit A: Michael Mediavilla.
A year ago, Mediavilla was a freshman All-American after logging a 1.94 ERA as one of Miami’s top middle-inning relievers. Now, the 6-5 sophomore lefty is the Hurricanes’ ace. Known for an array of pitches he can throw for strikes, a calm demeanor and laser-sharp focus, he’s 11-1 with a 3.12 ERA in 17 starts. Mediavilla is the first UM pitcher with 11 wins since Chris Hernandez in 2008 and is the leading half of a one-two punch alongside fellow starter Danny Garcia (9-4, 3.48).
Exhibit B: Frankie Bartow.
The freshman quickly evolved into Miami’s main setup pitcher this season while junior Cooper Hammond dealt with an arm injury and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery. Bartow responded with a 6-0 record in a team-high 41 appearances out of the bullpen, leading the righty to freshman All-America honors.
Exhibit C: Bryan Garcia.
A closer since he first stepped foot on Mark Light Field three years ago, the junior leads UM with a 1.95 ERA and holds the program record with 43 career saves.
None came bigger than Sunday’s Super Regional finale against Boston College.
Garcia remained calm as he closed out an emotional, winner-take-all game against the Eagles by striking out BC’s Jake Palomaki with bases loaded in the eighth and then working a clean ninth to send Miamiback to Omaha.
“Postseason baseball, all that matters is pitching and defense,” Bryan Garcia said. “You’ve got to find a way to get some timely hitting and scrap a couple runs across. But without good pitching, you’re not going to get far. They’re definitely underrated.”
On the field, catcher Zack Collins works to ensure he’s on the same page as his pitcher.
He has built a rapport with all 14 pitchers, learning how to handle their pitches, their audibles and their emotions.
He has also had a first-person view of their success.
“They’ve pretty much come through all year,” Collins said. “In big situations, we’ve thrown in different guys and everybody’s come through. We have some bulldogs on the mound.”
Yet Miami’s pitching is rarely talked about outside of Coral Gables as the staff competes without what Arteaga called any “big-name players.”
The Hurricanes’ national pitching stats aren’t eye-opening (42nd in ERA, 58th in hits allowed per game, 130th in strikeout-to-walk ratio), but UM’s staff has still found ways to win close games.
This season, Miami is 13-6 in games decided by no more than two runs, has given up two or fewer runs in 19 of 50 wins, and has won 14 games when scoring no more than five runs.
“We’re battle-tested,” Arteaga said. “That’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, four national seeds saw their seasons end last weekend due to late pitching miscues.
Second-seeded Louisville was stunned when closer Zack Burdi — a second-team All-American relief pitcher who had given up just eight runs all season — surrendered a walk-off grand slam to a UC Santa Barbara freshman pinch-hitter with just 26 career at-bats.
No. 4 national seed Texas A&M’s pitching staff gave up 12 runs in its two losses to TCU despite coming into the weekend ranked 10th nationally with a 3.07 ERA.
Sixth-seeded Mississippi State and eighth-seeded LSU were also eliminated in the Super Regionals on their home fields — the former in a pair of one-run games to Arizona, the latter on a walk-off single to Coastal Carolina.
“They’re definitely underrated,” shortstop Brandon Lopez said of UM’s pitching staff. “They’ve kept us in games.”
Miami’s offense has done its part to help its pitching staff as well, providing run support against some top pitchers.
This year alone, the Hurricanes have faced three conference pitchers of the year, five first-round draft selections and nine additional starters with a season ERA below 3.00.
Only three of the 17 pitchers that fall into the above categories found ways to effectively stymie UM’s offense: UF ace and Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year Logan Shore (four-hit complete-game shutout on Feb. 26); Georgia Tech starter Brandon Gold (seven shutout innings on May 7); and Florida State’s Tyler Holton (three earned runs, nine hits and 17 strikeouts in 13 combined innings over two games).
Against the other 14, Miami’s offense had 64 hits and brought home 44 runs — 33 earned — over 55 1/3 innings, equivalent to a 5.37 ERA.
“It’s a satisfying feeling that my team is going to go out and score runs,” Mediavilla said. “It may not be early in the game, but it’s going to happen.”
On to Omaha
With less than a dozen athletic scholarships to build a baseball team, Morris has joked about devoting his scholarships solely to position players.
In a worst-case scenario with a team full of defensive-minded shortstops, power hitters and athletic outfielders, Morris said an ATEC pitching machine — the same machines used during batting practice — would do the trick on the mound.
But in the end, Morris cedes to reality.
“The real deal is you’re going to end up giving the money to the pitcher,” Morris said, “because that’s what it takes to win.”
Miami knows it needs to get off to a good start in Omaha.
Since 2003, when the championship round of the College World Series transitioned from a single game to a best-of-3 series, all but two eventual national champions (South Carolina, 2010; Oregon State, 2006) won at least the first two games of the bracket round.
Ten of the last 13 champions also gave up less than four runs per game during their time in Omaha.
“You’re not going to hit good pitchers,” Morris said. “It’s tougher. They’re going to stop you. We’ve got to pitch well, we’ve got to have solid defense and we’ve got to do the little things to win.”