June 10, 2010

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to NCAA.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Yasmani Grandal stood in the batting cage Thursday, dug into the left-handed batter's box and quickly launched a batting-practice pitch over the Gator painted on an outfield fence at the University of Florida.

Then, he switched over to the right-handed batter's box and sprayed line drives all over the place.

There is little wonder why the University of Miami junior catcher is a Golden Spikes Award finalist, a first-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Reds and drawing comparisons from his coach to Boston Red Sox All-Star catcher Jason Varitek.

Grandal, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, is hitting .411 entering this weekend's NCAA Division I baseball Super Regional best-of-three series against Florida at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville. The longtime rival Hurricanes and Gators will meet in Game 1 at 7 p.m. (EDT) Friday (ESPN), with Game 2 to follow at 7 p.m. Saturday and Game, if necessary, at 7 p.m. Sunday.

The No. 3-seeded Gators (45-15) swept into the Super Regional by winning three straight games by a combined 32-5 in a regional Florida hosted last weekend. They have won 13 straight at home. The Hurricanes (43-18) defeated Texas A&M in a regional-deciding game Tuesday, setting up a rematch of last year's NCAA Regional won by Florida. The winner of the series moves on to the College World Series, beginning June 19 in Omaha, Neb.

Within 24 hours earlier this week, Grandal was drafted by the Reds, was named one of five Golden Spikes finalists and drove in two runs in the Hurricanes' 10-3 win over Texas A&M. But one word is driving his motivation: Omaha.

"No matter what, the main goal is Omaha," Grandal said. "That's what it's been since the fall."

The Hurricanes, who have won two national championships since 1999, are seeking their 12th CWS appearance in 17 years and their first since 2008.

In the midst of Miami's run at another Series, Grandal has turned into not only the best catcher in the ACC, but its best hitter as well. He has driven in a career-high 58 runs and has a career-high slugging percentage of .730 in addition to his near perfect fielding percentage of .994. When Miami head coach Jim Morris talks of Grandal and Varitek in the same sentence, he should know; Morris coached Varitek at Georgia Tech.

"He's a Jason Varitek, one of my former players. That's who he reminds me of," Morris said. "He's a captain, switch-hitter, big-body type, strong hitter from both sides, throws people out, and he's accurate throwing. So he's a Jason Varitek type."

Varitek's annual salary rose up to $11 million with the Red Sox, and Morris his happy to see that his latest pupil will soon be grabbing a piece of those big bucks as a first-round draft choice.

"It's great to see him go because you know that he's going to make some money, which is needed in his situation, coming from Cuba," Morris said. "Like a lot of kids that come (from Cuba), families that come, they leave everything. So it's an opportunity for him to put some money in his back pocket and go to the next level."

But before any of that happens, there is Gainesville, and perhaps Omaha behind that. There is little question that Grandal, a team captain, is focused on his collegiate career now, and specifically this postseason, now that the stress of the baseball draft is over.

"The draft was kind of a distraction, but that's out of the way already," Grandal said. "It's not really a big deal now. All you've got to focus on is tomorrow's (Friday's) game and getting the first win."

Grandal learned of his selection in the draft during a rain delay in Monday's game against Texas A&M. The circumstance was far different from a former Hurricane star, Pat Burrell, who discovered he was the No. 1 choice in the 1998 baseball draft while he was standing in the on-deck circle getting ready to bat in the College World Series.

"I don't know anybody in the world, no matter how old you are or whatever, I don't know why he went to the plate," Morris said. "I would have been so emotional going to the plate in that situation, 30 seconds after somebody said you were the No. 1 pick in the country.

"At least Yas had 30 minutes to relax, get ready to play the game."

Grandal bats third in the Hurricanes' lineup, and while he has the team's highest batting average, he is followed by Harold Martinez, who has hit a team-high 21 home runs, and Chris Palaez, who has driven in 53 runs. While Miami will face a hot offensive machine in Florida (80 home runs, 107 doubles), the Hurricanes have averaged 10 runs a game in four NCAA Regional and three ACC Tournament games. And that is a point Grandal is quick to bring up.

"Everybody else doesn't think we're too good offensively," Grandal said. "I don't know what the stats are, but the least amount of runs we've scored since the ACC Tournament is seven. I think that's pretty good."