Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Little Columbia has Miami Hurricanes feeling heat in NCAA baseball tournament regional

Columbia University baseball is a charming little story, when you think about it.

The school from upper Manhattan had won only one NCAA regional playoff game in its long history before this week becoming the first Ivy League school since Harvard in 1998 to win two.

Its starting pitcher Sunday night was a freshman making his first appearance in five weeks after being benched for ineffectiveness.

Its left fielder is a 29-year-old war veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They don’t often mix up the order on “student-athlete” in the Ivy League. You think of Columbia students winning résumés and job interviews — not baseball games.

The downside to this charming little story is that it has come at the expense of the University of Miami, whose Hurricanes suddenly are on the teetering edge of postseason elimination after Sunday night’s 3-0 home loss.

The high-scoring Canes had not been shut out all season until choosing the most inopportune time to see their scoreboard blank.

Now UM and Columbia meet again here Monday night at 7 — with only everything at stake. The winner only gets to next week’s best-of-3 super regional, whose winner advances to Omaha and the College World Series.

It would be beyond Cinderella stuff if Columbia reached Omaha.

It would be beyond a huge disappointment if Miami did not.

That’s the pressure UM has invited upon itself now. That also is the pressure that has found coach Jim Morris, who last saw Omaha in 2008 and last won a national championship in ever-distant 2001.

We don’t associate major upsets with baseball the way we do in football or some other sports, maybe because so much depends upon the pitching any given night. But there is no doubt about this:

It would be a stunning shock if, Monday night in Coral Gables, Ivy League Columbia eliminated the mighty Hurricanes, the No.5 national seed.

A single, a couple of walks, a fly ball lost in the lights in left field and a double-play grounder conspired in the fifth inning for two Columbia runs, and it was enough to push UM to this desperate point.

Those two runs proved to be plenty because Miami’s bats, so loud all season, whispered all night, managing but a lonely pair of singles.

It is rarely a good thing when your team used more than twice as many pitchers (5) as it had hits.

In sports there always is the other side to the cheering, the victim to the charming underdog.

Sunday it was the small knot of Columbia fans standing, howling and waving powder-blue pompoms as the game ended, making all of the noise as dejected (and humbled, and thoroughly surprised) Canes fans slowly spilled into the night.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Miami is the pedigreed giant in this home regional. You looked at the other three teams here and imagined UM would have waltzed into next week — not required the college baseball equivalent of a Game 7.

There was FIU, a .500 team. There was East Carolina from middling Conference USA. And there was Columbia from the brainy Ivy.

You want to talk contrast?

UM has made 23 College World Series appearances and won four national championships.

Now here is the combined all-time CWS appearances of Columbia, FIU and East Carolina:

Zero. None. Never.

Now, though, suddenly, it is underdog Columbia, of all teams, threatening to topple mighty Miami.

It’s a charming little story, all right.

And one that Morris and the Canes had better prevent Monday night.

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