University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris received an anonymous gift of Omaha Steaks through the mail. He figures it’s a very good sign of things to come for his team.
“They were delivered to my home, but I have no idea who sent them,” he said, smiling broadly as the sun dispersed clouds and the rain tarp was lifted off the field Tuesday afternoon.
The promised land of his sport is Omaha, Nebraska, home of the College World Series and second home of the Hurricanes under the late Ron Fraser, who took 12 teams out west and won two championships, and under Morris, who went to the CWS 11 times and won two championships in his first 15 years as coach.
Then came a six-year drought. Omaha seemed so far away. Disgruntled fans complained that the game had passed Morris by and that UM’s status as a perennial contender had withered.
But last season UM returned to the CWS for the first time since 2008. All was right again in the corner of Coral Gables where baseball has always had a passionate following. Except that the trip to Omaha was too brief. UM went 1-2 and was eliminated by rival Florida.
That leaves a huge incentive for Morris and his players, who begin their season Friday with a three-game home series against Rutgers.
“Omaha is talked about every day, I can tell you — every day,” Morris said. “If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to get to Omaha.”
Catcher Zack Collins refers to “unfinished business” for UM, ranked as high as No. 4 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 6 by Baseball America.
“Going to Omaha was good but it’s not good if you don’t win,” he said. “Losing on national TV like that was not fun and kind of embarrassing. We shorted ourselves out. We had the team to win it last year and we didn’t finish.
“We want to win the whole thing. We want to be remembered.”
Collins plans to take up the slack left by departed run producers David Thompson (90 RBI and 19 home runs) and George Iskenderian (.364 and 55 RBI), in collaboration with Willie Abreu, Jacob Heyward and Romy Gonzalez.
“I need Zack to hit about .800,” Morris said. “Zack, Abreu and Heyward need to knock in some runs. They’ve got to get it done and step it up.”
UM also lost ace pitcher Andy Suarez, which has Morris planning a rotation of left-handers Thomas Woodrey on Fridays, Michael Mediavilla on Saturdays and Danny Garcia on Sundays, with righties Jesse Lepore and Andrew Cabezas vying for the midweek starter slot. Cabezas, a freshman, used to work the UM stadium concession stand as a player at Coral Gables High so he knows the friendly confines of Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park.
“Mediavilla has made it impossible for us to leave him in the bullpen,” Morris said. “We’ve got to have him in the rotation. We need our pitchers to get us to the ninth inning.”
And in the ninth, UM relies on closer Bryan Garcia to lock the door. To bridge the gap between starter and Garcia, UM is counting on sidearm thrower Cooper Hammond, but has some question marks in the bullpen. Garcia, however, isn’t worried.
“We feel we can get plenty of relief after five innings, because there are five or six guys who can come in in the sixth-seventh inning and I have confidence in every single one,” he said, noting Frankie Bartow, Keven Pimentel and Isaiah Musa.
As for defense, senior shortstop Brandon Lopez is off to a disappointing start for the third consecutive year, suspended again for violating team rules for the first several games of the season, which means he might miss the Feb. 26-28 home series against No. 1-ranked Florida, which will be an early barometer of UM’s Omaha potential with ACC games starting in March.
“Florida has the best club they’ve ever had in their history,” Morris said. “They’re loaded and if they don’t win it all they’re in trouble.”
Morris has three years left at the helm before he turns it over to Associate Head Coach Gino DiMare. It’s a hopeful time to be around the UM campus, where the baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s track and field and women’s tennis teams are all ranked in the top 20. Stop by to watch some of the best athletes in the nation.
The baseball team has the June 18-29 College World Series dates printed on its schedule. Omaha beckons. Morris can almost taste it.