Greg Cote

Greg Cote: UM baseball one step closer to ‘promised land’ ‒ and program needs it badly

Pitcher Bryan Garcia reacts after UM’s 3-2 victory against Virginia Commeonwealth in an NCAA Super Regional at Mark Light Field in Coral Gables on Friday, June 5, 2015.
Pitcher Bryan Garcia reacts after UM’s 3-2 victory against Virginia Commeonwealth in an NCAA Super Regional at Mark Light Field in Coral Gables on Friday, June 5, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

There are a few pulsing imperatives in South Florida sports at the moment. The Heat had better find a way to keep Dwyane Wade. Al Golden had better find a way to win back Hurricanes football fans. The Dolphins had better make the playoffs. And, a rung down on the local ladder but not less important to its fans, the University of Miami baseball team had better find its way back to Omaha.

The Canes are one victory away now.

“One more to get back to the promised land,” as UM coach Jim Morris put it Friday.

Getting to the College World Series on the eastern edge of Nebraska did seem promised to Miami, an annual occurrence, once. But UM hasn’t been back there since 2008 and last returned home national champions in 2001.

Since then it has been mostly a matter of broken promise for a four-time national champion program in search of its lost luster and diminished prestige.

It is time.

Miami beat Virginia Commonwealth 3-2 Friday in the opener of the teams’ best-of-3 NCAA super regional at UM’s ballpark tucked onto the far corner of its Coral Gables campus. Now the Canes will either clinch their trip to Omaha on Saturday, or plunge nerve-racked into an all-or-nothing Sunday.

It will be Lunch at The Light again. TV dollars make the college tail wag, in this case ESPNU, so these are noon starts. The park filled with 2,853 fans anyway, most waiting out a 90-minute lightning delay.

In last week’s regional here, Miami needed that extra game to advance past Columbia, something Morris wishes to avoid this weekend.

“Last week we were in the driver’s seat but lost a little focus,” he said.

UM won Friday mostly because starter Andy Suarez pitched five strong innings, left-fielder Jacob Heyward delivered a big two-run single, and a crucial interference call reversal went against VCU in the sixth inning.

The eventual call was correct. The VCU runner did impede Miami second baseman George Iskenderian as he attempted to field a grounder. The reversed call was “huge,” Morris said, but, to his credit, Commonwealth coach Shawn Stiffler didn’t pin the loss on it or whine.

“Congratulations to the University of Miami. They pitched outstanding today,” he began his postgame remarks. “We had three errors and never got that big hit. We’ve got to play better.”

Virginia Commonwealth is a good story, only the fifth No. 4 regional seed ever to reach a super regional and seeking the first CWS berth in school history.

Friday’s Rams losing pitcher JoJo Howie is a part of that good story. He held Miami to four hits in 6 1/3 innings and kept VCU in the game — all the more remarkable because he suffers from what the school calls a mild affliction with muscular dystrophy.

He stayed in after the long weather delay.

“I’ve kind of pitched through aches and pains my entire life,” he said. “A lot of people when I was younger probably wouldn’t have expected me to be on this stage. I soaked it all up. It was a great experience.”

VCU’s clear underdog role is just one more reason why Miami — top 10 in the polls and the No. 5 national seed among the original 64 NCAA playoff teams — had better reach Morris’ elusive “promised land.”

The visitors from Richmond lost 23 games this season and are the lowest-seeded team still alive in the college postseason. Miami’s opponents in last week’s regional here, Columbia from the Ivy League and a .500 FIU team, also were lower seeds bereft of program pedigree.

Simply put, beyond the regional and super regional both being at home, UM has had the easiest draw and clearest path to Omaha of any team. None of the opponents the Canes have faced in the NCAAs have ever been to the CWS, a temple Miami has visited 23 times.

Of course none of that promises the promised land to the Hurricanes.

It just magnifies the imperative that they had better get there.

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