Miami Hurricanes center fielder Dale Carey recalls looking up at the Mark Light Field scoreboard last year as he stepped to the plate against Georgia Tech in the final regular-season series.
“I saw .190,” Carey said, “and thought, ‘What went wrong?’ ”
One year later, everything is right.
When Carey leads off Thursday against North Carolina in UM’s opener of the final regular-season series, he’ll see .302 on the scoreboard and an opportunity to help the still-sizzling Canes — winners of 25 of their past 27 games — become the first UM team since 2008 to earn one of eight national seeds in the NCAA tournament that begins May 30.
But that’s not all.
Should seventh-ranked Miami (38-14, 22-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) sweep visiting UNC (31-21, 14-13) this weekend, the Canes would become the first ACC team since conference expansion in 2005 to win 25 games in league play. The first-place Canes already have swept four three-game league road series this season — a first for any team since expansion — and have a current, nation-leading 15-game road winning streak.
Their longest road streak is 16 games, accomplished during the Canes’ last of four national championship seasons in 2001.
“I talked to Coach [Jim] Morris after our last road trip,” said senior left fielder Tyler Palmer.
“He goes, ‘These bus trips are a lot more fun this year.’ ”
Credit Carey and Palmer (.295) as two of the senior leaders who have mentored freshman phenoms, such as right fielder Willie Abreu (.310, 27 RBI) and catcher Zack Collins (.298, 8 HR, 44 RBI) en route to this breakout season.
“They’re the best of the best,” Abreu said of the veteran duo — the Nos. 1 and 2 hitters in the lineup. “Honestly, I couldn’t ask for better leaders. They’ve paved the way for us young guys. They’ve been our spark plugs.”
Palmer, Carey, Abreu and fellow outfielders Ricky Eusebio, John Lawroski and Jacob Heyward make up the “Hurricane Outlaws” — a Twitter account that goes by the handle @UMOutlaws and includes in its bio, “Where hits go to die. The Outlaws. Not just outfielders, we are people too.”
After especially gratifying games, the Outlaws take selfies and post tweets.
Said Carey: “It’s a pride thing. I’ve never been so proud of a team before.”
Last year, on a deficient UM team that struggled hitting and fielding, Palmer and Carey combined for 1 home run, 18 RBI and 23 stolen bases.
This year: 8 home runs, 55 RBI and 32 stolen bases.
The two are neck and neck in the 60-yard dash, with Carey leading the team at 6.5 seconds. Palmer, however, has 18 stolen bases to Carey’s 14.
“He’s getting thrown out more, so I must be faster,” Palmer said, laughing.
Strength-and-conditioning coach Brian Gabriel said they’re both “blessings,” citing Carey’s increased strength and confidence and Palmer’s “work ethic” as a captain.
“He’s aggressive in every aspect, not only on the field but in the weight room and classroom.”
Although Palmer, a Florida Gators transfer from Pembroke Pines, has never been drafted, Carey was drafted out of Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler High in the 21st round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010.
“Coming to Miami was the best decision of my life,” Carey said.
After hitting .271 in his first two UM seasons, Carey’s .192 in 2013 was a shocker.
“I didn’t have an approach and just went up there and swung at everything,” he said.
This year he has stepped up his mental preparation, thoroughly studying opponents before and during games and making adjustments accordingly.
He hit his first grand slam last Saturday against Duke, hit .429 in the series and led the team with six RBI. He has 11 drag bunts for hits and puts pressure on defenses with his speed both offensively and defensively.
Carey still revels in his spectacular outfield catch against now top-ranked Virginia — ESPN SportsCenter’s No. 1 play of the day in late March.
UM heads to Greensboro, N.C., after this series to compete in the ACC Tournament that begins Tuesday.
“Hopefully,” Abreu said, “we’ll keep rolling.”