College baseball: Miami looks to earn NCAA Tournament berth with late-season run
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Not just any 13-inning walk-off victory for the Miami Hurricanes Tuesday to open the ACC tournament. Not just any game-winning single into right for Joe Gomez to beat Georgia Tech 6-5.
Not with history, the painful kind, crowding in on the Hurricanes.
Because how much would it hurt, to be the first Miami team in 45 years to miss the NCAA Tournament? The Hurricanes came to town with a 29-26 record, so that 44-season streak of making the field -- the longest active in any sport -- now hangs by a thread in Louisville Slugger Field, on the banks of the Ohio River.
“Just let them play, and let me worry about the pressure of 44,” coach Jim Morris was saying after the Hurricanes’ overtime escape Tuesday. “But you know it’s there. It’s like a little monkey on your back, or a big monkey on your back, maybe a gorilla.”
Think about that – 44 years. Nine U.S. presidents. Go back to 1972, the last time Miami stayed home. The Super Bowl had only been played six times, major league baseball had only 24 teams, the NCAA baseball tournament only 28 entries, the basketball tournament only 25. Jackie Robinson, Charles Lindbergh, Harry Truman and Swede Risberg – the last surviving member of the 1919 Black Sox – were still alive.
The Hurricanes came here with 26 losses, a No. 47 spot in the RPI, and lots of work to do. What will it take in the ACC tournament to wrangle an invitation? Two victories? Three? The league title? “I’d like to win the tournament, and have no doubt,” Morris said.
This is a rare cloudy situation for a program that can claim 25 College World Series appearances, including just a year ago. Led by a coach with the fifth most victories in Division I history: Since when do the Hurricanes have to sweat out an invitation? “We haven’t had this situation since I’ve been at Miami,” said Morris, a 24-year man in Coral Gables, Florida, “because we’ve always been worried about hosting.”
But one thing was certain. A loss Tuesday would have been fatal. Absolutely fatal.
“I don’t know if they understood that if you don’t win today, you’re out, you don’t have a chance,” Morris said of his players. “So I didn’t talk to them about that. I was hoping they didn’t realize that, but they probably did. They’re pretty smart kids.”
So each good deed Tuesday was an act of salvation for a proud program fighting for its postseason life. Hunter Tackett’s grand slam that wiped out a 4-1 Georgia Tech lead in the third inning, Andrew Cabezas’ 6.1 innings of no-hit, 10-strikeout relief – three innings longer than he had gone all season. And in the end, Gomez’ one-out game-winner.
“Any way, anyhow, I just wanted to get it done,” Gomez said.
You wonder. No matter how much Morris has been trying to take on the pressure of 44 himself, how are the players handling it?
“Simple,” Gomez said. “All we’re focused on is one game at a time. We’re not going to let anything else bother us. We’re going to do what we’ve got to do.”
Cabezas: “We’re all trying to do the best that we can. I know it’s not been one of the best seasons in the University of Miami history but we are making it pretty interesting right now.”
Morris: “I think our guys are used to dealing with that pressure and people talking about it, because we hear it every day in Miami.”
So what happened this season?
“Let’s start with, we got hit hard by the draft; incoming players and returning players,” Morris said. “We lose our catcher to surgery. Our All-American closer, Cooper Hammond, has arm surgery. So that’s the difference. We don’t have that much depth.”
The numbers also tell their story.
The 29 regular season wins were the fewest at Miami since 1970. The program that was 70-11 at home the past two seasons went 20-13 this year.
The Hurricanes went into Tuesday’s game hitting .229 as a team – 69 percentage points below last season. The best average in the lineup belonged to Carl Chester at .278. Seven of the nine starters were under .250.
Starting pitchers Michael Mediaville and Jesse Lepore were 20-2 in 2016. They’re 5-10 this season.
But the Hurricanes are not going meekly. They won their last four regular season games, the finale in 10 innings. And then Tuesday’s marathon, the kind of moment that can make a team believe. The long road back from a 12-15 record when March ended.
“We couldn’t buy a big hit in the first half of the season,” Morris said. “The first half of the season was kind of nightmare for us, for me and for our team. It’s been tough on us. The expectations are so high at Miami, and the pressure is there.
“I feel like every game has been a must-win to get our record where it needed to be.”
Added Tackett: “I really think we’re going in the right direction.”
Another moment of truth comes Thursday, against Wake Forest. Win that, and the Hurricanes are in the ACC semifinals and own 31 wins. Might well be enough. And if they lose?
Not a subject Morris wants to bring up with his players. Or how 44 years is a long time.
“Don’t think about,” he said. “Just think about having fun and playing the game hard every day. But still, they think about it. I try to get them not to think about it and just play the game. People don’t understand, sometime that streak is going to end. Hopefully it’s not this year.”
It’s a different May at Miami.
— Canes Baseball (@CanesBaseball) May 23, 2017