For University of Miami baseball aficionados spoiled the past couple of seasons by the power-hitting, home-run-blasting Hurricanes, it might be time to pop that rhetorical chill pill.
The 2017 Hurricanes open their season at Mark Light Field against Rutgers at 7 p.m. Friday, and patience might be a fitting mantra for those who thrive on the “bigger is better’’ philosophy.
This new Canes squad apparently will be taking the “smaller is better’’ philosophy, as in sacrifice bunts and stolen bases and solid defense and stellar pitching.
That’s what happens when the two stars who combined for 28 home runs last year and helped lead UM to a 50-14 record and No. 3 national seed in the College World Series head off to major-league organizations. Catcher Zack Collins (.363 batting average with 16 home runs, 59 RBI and a .668 slugging percentage) and right fielder Willie Abreu (.285 with 12 home runs, 56 RBI and .510 slugging) will leave a major void, though freshman catcher Michael Amditis was regarded as one of the best prep defensive catchers in the nation before missing his final season at Boca Raton High because of shoulder surgery.
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“We’re not going to be a power team,” said UM coach Jim Morris, about to begin his 24th season in Coral Gables, where the Hurricanes have qualified for the NCAA tournament a record 44 consecutive years and brought home four national titles, two under Morris. “We’re going to be a team that I predict will not score that many runs. We’re going to have to hit line drives and run and bunt some.
“We need a good on-base percentage. We need guys to play as a team and do little things. It’s based a lot on pitching.”
The Hurricanes, ranked in the preseason as high as No. 8 by Collegiate Baseball, will depend on that pitching to hold down the runs and relieve some pressure from their lineup.
“The pitching is as deep as we’ve ever been since I’ve been here,” said pitching coach J.D. Arteaga, a former UM great who is entering his 15th season as an assistant and whose No. 33 jersey has been retired since 2003.
The Canes will start new Friday night ace and preseason All-American Jesse Lepore, last year’s 9-0 mid-week, right-handed starter who had a 2.20 ERA and whose fastball tops out at 95 miles per hour.
“Ever since I came here as a freshman, that’s been the goal,’’ said the 6-4, 215-pound junior. “Just proud to have finally achieved it.’’
Left-handed junior-college transfer Jeb Bargfeldt earned Saturday’s spot and last year’s ace, All-American Michael Mediavilla (11-2, 3.40), will pitch Sunday after struggling with his control.
Right-handed All-American Frankie Bartow, now a sophomore, will transition to closer from last year’s role as setup man, with fellow right-handed sophomore Andrew Cabezas also in the running to finish games — though Morris said he could start, too.
Defensively, the Canes will be without preseason All-American Johnny Ruiz, who has a sore throwing arm and had been projected to move from second base to shortstop. Ruiz is expected to be the designated hitter Friday, with junior-college transfer Brandon Gali likely playing shortstop for now and Romy Gonzalez at second.
Chris Barr, one of UM’s best defensive players, had back surgery in December and hasn’t played much since, but still might start at first on Friday.
“It’s nerve-racking, but it’s also very interesting,’’ Morris said. “Whatever the lineup I put up there on Friday night won’t be the lineup a month from now. I guarantee you.’’
The goal, of course, is to get back to Omaha for the College World Series. UM dropped both of its CWS games to end 2016.
“It was a great season,’’ third baseman Edgar Michelangeli said. “I didn’t see it as a failure. It didn’t turn out to be the way we expected it to be. It happens. Hopefully, this year we can have a better run.’’