University of Miami

Miami Canes’ home-run king Toral does it again to boost UM’s chances to host regional

Alex Toral and Jordan Lala discuss Canes’ victory over Duke

The Miami Hurricanes' Alex Toral and Jordan Lala talk about the victory over Duke Thursday night, May 16, 2019, in Coral Gables, Fla. Toral hit his 20th and 21st home runs of the season, both solo shots, in the second and sixth innings.
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The Miami Hurricanes' Alex Toral and Jordan Lala talk about the victory over Duke Thursday night, May 16, 2019, in Coral Gables, Fla. Toral hit his 20th and 21st home runs of the season, both solo shots, in the second and sixth innings.

The NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament is all but in their grasp.

Now, the Miami Hurricanes are even closer to starting it on their home turf.

In the beginning of the end of the 2019 regular season, the home-run-hitting Hurricanes, led by sophomore phenom Alex Toral, inched closer to their goal of hosting an NCAA regional by defeating the Duke Blue Devils 4-3 Thursday at Mark Light Field.

Toral hit his 20th and 21st home runs of the season, both solo shots, in the second and sixth innings, with catcher Michael Amditis following Toral’s sixth-inning boomer with one of his own to make it 3-3. Jordan Lala’s hard-hit ground ball in the eighth deflected off the first-base bag and drove home pinch-runner Willy Escala for the go-ahead run after Toral opened the inning with a walk and advanced to second on Amditis’ sacrifice bunt.

In the top of the ninth, Lala’s exceptional throw from left field nailed Duke pinch-runner Damon Lux at third base for the game’s next-to-last out.

901DukeatCanesDS
Duke Blue Devils pinch runner Damon Lux (9) slides into third base as Miami Hurricanes third baseman Willy Escala (9) applies the tag following an exceptional throw by Jordan Lala Thursday, May 16, 2019 at Mark Light Field. DAVID SANTIAGO dsantiago@miamiherald.com

“Great overall win,’’ said UM coach Gino DiMare. “Lala, big at-bat there at the end. That ball hit the base. We were lucky, caught a break there because that guy was going to field the ball. But anything can happen when you put the ball in play. And then that play in the ninth that [Lala] made in left field was absolutely huge. Thank God that Freddy didn’t cut the ball... That probably won us the game there.’’

The Hurricanes (37-16, 17-11 Atlantic Coast Conference), ranked 18th by Baseball America and D1Baseball and 17th in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, would boost their chances of hosting an NCAA regional if they win at least one of the final regular-season games against Duke (29-23, 14-14) at 7 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m Saturday. The Canes came into Thursday with the nation’s No. 16 RPI.

Right-handed UM starter Brian Van Belle allowed three earned runs on seven hits and a walk in six innings. He struck out five.

Daniel Federman (3-4, 3.46) didn’t allow a hit or walk in his two innings to get the win, and closer Greg Veliz finshed the job to earn his ninth save.

Freddy Zamora led UM with three hits, but Toral was the game-changer. He is the first Hurricane to hit 21 home runs in a season since Harold Martinez did it in 2010. He came into the game ranked ninth in the nation in homers.

“My sense is that he’s seeing the ball probably right now as good as he has all year,’’ DiMare said of Toral. “Forget the home runs — the walk [was crucial]. ...You can tell he’s just very comfortable, very confident. I can just feel that watching him and I’m sure the dugout absolutely is feeling the same thing.’’

Added Lala: “Unbelievable. I don’t even know what to say. That man is unreal.”

When asked if he feels as if every time he comes to the plate, something special might happen, Toral said, “There’s always a possibility if I get the right pitch in the right location...I felt both [home runs] were equally important. We were down, and it boosted the team.’’

Miami Hurricanes baseball coach Gino DiMare discusses home-run hitter Alex Toral and UM’s victory over Duke on Thursday, May 16, 2019, in Coral Gables, Fla.

After they wrap up the Duke series, the Canes on Monday will head to Durham Bulls Athletic Park in North Carolina for the ACC Baseball Championship. UM will likely play its first ACC tournament game on either Tuesday or Wednesday, with the semifinals on Saturday and the title game at noon Sunday. Each of the 12 teams divided among four pools will play at least one game against the other competitors in their pool.

Before Thursday’s game, Miami was projected by Baseball America and D1Baseball to be the 12th of 16 hosts for the NCAA regionals, which begin Friday, May 31 around the nation. But should the four-time national champion Canes lose the Duke series and falter in the ACC tourney, they could potentially lose their bid to host a regional, making it far more difficult to ultimately reach Omaha, Nebraska for the CWS.

“You’re hopefully solidifying yourself by hosting, which gives you the advantage. That’s not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to win the whole thing. But there’s a process to it to help give yourself a chance to win the whole thing, and certainly hosting helps that.

“But also just playing good baseball. You don’t want to go backwards right now. We want to keep going forward. It’s a good sign...’’

Miami Herald sports writer Susan Miller Degnan has been the Miami Hurricanes football beat writer since 2000, the season before the Canes won it all. She has won several APSE national writing awards and has covered everything from Canes baseball to the College Football Playoff to major marathons to the Olympics.
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