Rafael Palmeiro: Cuban born, Miami raised … and Mississippi immortalized.
Miami Hurricanes baseball fans who made the journey this weekend to watch their team play in the Starkville regional were greeted by two statues in front of Dudy Noble Field, bearing the likenesses of former Mississippi State stars Palmeiro and his ex-teammate Will Clark.
Just a few steps from the stadium is the Palmeiro Center, a 68,000-square-foot indoor baseball practice facility
Palmeiro, who played at Miami Jackson High before becoming one of just six major-leaguers with more than 500 homers and 3,000 hits, visited Starkville on Feb. 16, when $68 million Duty Noble officially opened.
A three-time All-American, Palmeiro in 1984 became the first Triple Crown winner in SEC history. His college coach was Ron Polk, who also has a local tie. Polk was a Miami Dade College (Kendall campus) assistant coach from 1968 to 1971.
Polk, known here as the “Godfather of SEC baseball”, led the Bulldogs to six College World Series appearances.
The Bulldogs, who have never won a CWS title, have a legit chance to do so this year. They opened this regional Friday afternoon with an 11-6 win over Southern.
Mississippi State (47-13), the top seed in this regional and ranked fifth nationally, would play the Hurricanes on Saturday if Miami is able to stop Central Michigan’s 18-game win streak in the game played late Friday night.
The Bulldogs have saved ace pitcher Ethan Small -- a lefty first-round-draft prospect– for Saturday’s game. Small, the SEC Pitcher of the Year, is 8-2 with a 1.80 ERA and 150 strikeouts in 90 innings.
Small hits low 90s on the radar gun, but it looks even faster. He allowed one run or less in eight of his 15 starts and earned National Pitcher of the Week honors four times, including after his seven hitless innings against Texas A&M.
Mississippi State, with a .316 batting average, has eight starters hitting over .300, and the “Diamond Dawgs” did that against an 18th-ranked strength of schedule.
Bulldogs senior center fielder Jake Magnum is a rock star in Starkville. The switch-hitter entered this tournament batting .363 with 21 doubles. He is the SEC’s all-time hits leader, and he also runs down balls in the gaps and throws out runners.
The Bulldogs are also good on defense, most notably catcher Dustin Skelton, who has thrown out 50 percent of runners who attempted to steal on him, including 1-of-3 on Friday.
Yep, the Bulldogs are loaded all over, and the Hurricanes – the second-highest-rated non-host in this year’s 64-team field – probably deserved to be sent to a more favorable regional. Not only are the Bulldogs a power, but third-seeded Central Michigan has won 46 games, and feisty fourth-seed Southern beat LSU 7-2 in April and was shockingly leading Mississippi State 4-2 in the fifth inning on Friday.
THIS AND THAT
▪ Dudy Noble has an extremely short porch straight down the right-field line: 305 feet. It is 330 feet in right field in Miami’s home field, Mark Light. It is also 330 feet down the left-field line at Dudy Noble.
That short porch in right might benefit Miami lefty-swinging slugger Alex Toral, who ranks sixth in the nation with 22 homers. Toral has the power to hit it out anywhere, but he could probably mishit a ball and pop it out if he gets it down the line.
Miami’s other lefty swingers of note are Adrian Del Castillo, JP Gates, Anthony Vilar, Jordan Lala and Chad Crosbie.
▪ Capacity at Dudy Noble is 15,000 plus, making it the largest on-campus baseball stadium in the nation. The Bulldogs set the NCAA single-game on-campus record in 2014 with a crowd of 15,586 for a game against Ole Miss. That record could fall on Saturday.