Jim Morris shook his head. Then he shook his head again. He looked thoroughly baffled by the game he has spent his life mastering.
Baseball does that. Baseball baffles. How does the hottest team in college baseball go cold when it should be peaking, on its own campus field, no less? Worse than cold. Frigid.
The University of Miami could only muster three hits in a 4-0 loss to Texas Tech in the NCAA Coral Gables Regional championship game Monday at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field.
UM had its sights set on the College World Series but will not make the trip to Omaha, Nebraska, for the sixth year in a row. UM has not advanced to a super regional since 2010.
“It’s a hard thing to explain at any level, whether here or high school or the major leagues, and everywhere in between,” Morris said. “It’s hard to explain when your bats go cold exactly why.”
Morris tried to offer an explanation, but there really was no explaining UM’s lack of offense in three of its four games since Friday.
“You’ve got to swing the bat to score some runs,” he said. “Two lefties ate our lunch. Crafty left-handers. They pitched, and that’s the name of the game.”
What was most disappointing about the loss was how UM fought its way out of the losers’ bracket only to go out in Game 7 with whiffs and a whimper.
UM came back from a 1-0 deficit in Game 6, which stretched through two rain delays and a bench-clearing fracas until it was suspended at 11:30 p.m. Sunday and resumed in the eighth inning Monday. Facing elimination, UM tied the score in the eighth, then won 2-1 in the 10th. David Thompson provided both RBI.
“I told them if we win the first game we will win the second; we’re the home team,” Morris said. “I believed that in my heart.”
Instead, a letdown as dull and gray as the afternoon. All the excitement and anticipation drained out of the stadium as Texas Tech collected two runs in the seventh and two more in the ninth with no counterattack from Miami.
Texas Tech pitcher Cameron Smith was not slated to play because of a sore arm, but he begged his coach for the ball, then proceeded to go the distance.
He felt the stiffness dissipate as if his arm was undergoing a lube job right there on the mound. Smith, making only his fourth start of the season, pitched his first complete game — a three-hitter with three strikeouts; 65 of his 114 pitches were strikes.
“They have a great pitching staff. Every guy they threw at us kept us off balance, stayed ahead in the count, threw for strikes,” UM left fielder Tyler Palmer said.
UM had a great pitching staff, too, but not enough hitters rose to the occasion. UM survived its first game 1-0 over Bethune Cookman on a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth. Then lost 3-0 to Texas Tech prior to a 10-0 victory over Bethune. Other than that outburst, UM scored only two earned runs in five games.
UM came into the regional with great expectations of a breakthrough finish that would at last take the program back to the College World Series.
After a slow 13-12 start to the season, UM won 27 of its last 30 regular-season games, including 19-2 in its final seven Atlantic Coast Conference weekends and four three-game road sweeps. UM won the ACC title by beating North Carolina in two of three games. Catcher Zack Collins was named ACC Freshman of the Year, starter Chris Diaz was named ACC -Pitcher of the Year and seven Hurricanes earned All-ACC recognition.
Then, it was off to the ACC tournament, where they lost two, won one and saw the start of the slump that continued in the regional.
“I grew up two blocks away, so playing here was a dream,” said senior Javi Salas, seeking some solace from the fact that he missed out on a chance to play in a super regional. “We battled, we’ve grown a lot together, we came together as a team and it’s disappointing we couldn’t put it together this weekend, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”
Longtime UM fans don’t like consolation prizes. They are impatient. Morris led UM to two of its national titles, in 1999 and 2001, and has taken UM to the College World Series 11 times in 21 seasons. But such is the history of success at UM, especially during the charismatic years of Ron Fraser, that a six-year drought isn’t good enough.
Morris mentioned UM’s 42 consecutive postseason appearances — longest active streak in Division I sports. UM shared company with Florida and Florida State, highly ranked host teams that also failed to advance. No team from the state remains in the tournament.
The pressure is on Morris to get UM back among the cream of the crop and to the promised land of Omaha. He said he probably won’t watch many games for the remainder of the tournament.
“It’s time to turn the page,” he said. “Just time to try to get it going.”