Coral Gables, FL — Fans and boosters have been giving the Miami Hurricanes a pat on the back for returning to regionals in 2019 following an uncharacteristic two-year absence, but second-year coach Gino DiMare has been aiming his contact a foot or so lower.
Figuratively speaking, DiMare gave his players a good kick in the butt this summer and fall in an effort to guard against complacency. Last season’s 41-20 record was nice, but for a program that has won four national titles, appeared in a record 44 straight NCAA tournaments and sent numerous players to the majors, losing in the finals of the Starkville Regional was simply not good enough.
“We addressed complacency right out of the gate this summer,” DiMare said, “and I was hard on them this fall. But I think their mindset is right. I was just making sure.”
DiMare, just the fourth Hurricanes baseball coach since 1963, believes he has the type of roster that can win what would be Miami’s first national title since 2001.
The Hurricanes return nine legitimate starters for the batting order, three pitchers good enough to be aces and a closer who earned seven saves last season.
They have a dynamic leadoff batter, a three-hole slugger who hit .331 with 72 RBIs and a cleanup man who blasted 24 homers last season.
“Our expectations are where they should be,” DiMare said. “We feel we have a team that can make a good run.”
Miami’s recruiting class was ranked between sixth and 15th nationally, although the Hurricanes suffered two defections in outfielder Hylan Hall and right-hander Dylan Eskew (Arizona’s 24th-round draft pick).
DiMare said he should be more comfortable in his second year calling the shots, and he is happy with the good things happening off the field, including a facility upgrade that includes plans for new indoor batting cages and scoreboard. The $7 million project will also include a nutrition center, player lounge and locker rooms.
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The project is so important to DiMare that he donated $500,000 of his own money to help spur more donations from Miami boosters.
“I’m very fortunate that (the late coach) Ron Fraser gave me an opportunity to play at Miami, my dream school,” said DiMare, a former Canes outfielder. “And if I didn’t play for Miami, I don’t think (former Canes coach) Jim Morris would’ve hired me as an assistant. He wanted to surround himself with Miami guys.
“I was an assistant here for 19 years. I have spent half my life at this university, and when (former Canes football coach Mark Richt made a similar donation), I thought that this was something I should do for baseball.”
Here’s a position by position look at the Canes as they prepare for the 2020 season:
The Canes return four of their top five starters, losing only Evan McKendry (7-2, 4.41). McKendry was drafted in the ninth round by Tampa Bay after going 18-10, 3.96 in three years at Miami.
Canes pitching coach J.D. Arteaga likes the starters he has for 2020, including Friday night ace Brian Van Belle, a senior who went 10-2, 3.30 in 16 starts last season.
“Brian stayed home all summer, worked on his strength and got his velocity up to 93,” Arteaga said. “His change is plus-plus, and he continues to work on his breaking ball.
“He had 20 strikeouts and just one walk this fall, and that was against our lineup, which is pretty good.”
As good as Van Belle is, Miami’s two other weekend starters — junior Chris McMahon and sophomore Slade Cecconi — have better stuff. In fact, Canes hitting coach Norberto Lopez said he wouldn’t be surprised if McMahon and Cecconi become first-round draft picks.
Cecconi, who went 5-4, 4.16 with a team-high 89 strikeouts last season, made freshman All-America teams after his impressive debut. He was also named Miami’s top pitcher this fall.
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McMahon (3-2, 3.72) had a knee injury as a freshman and shoulder tendinitis last season. He has shown flashes both years but has yet to have that injury-free breakout year. But he still has Arteaga’s confidence.
“We have three Friday night starters,” Arteaga said.
“Slade was throwing between 95 and 99 this fall. But he also has a great feel on the mound, throwing five pitches.
“Chris gets a lot of swings and misses, but we want him to get some weak, early contact so he can go deeper in games.”
After Miami’s big three, the Canes will have a decision to make regarding their midweek starter.
Tyler Keysor, a 6-5, 225-pound senior, went 6-1, 3.78 in 22 appearances last season, including five starts. He will get competition for that midweek spot from 6-4, 180-pound freshman Alex McFarlane and 6-4, 220-pound freshman Jake Garland.
Keysor would be extremely valuable to Miami as a reliever. But in an effort to nail down the starting job, he worked this fall to expand his pitch selection. He eschewed his split-finger — just for the fall — so he could work on his curve, slider and change.
“If he wants to start,” Arteaga said, “he needs more than a fastball and a split.”
McFarlane, who is from the Virgin Islands, has an electric arm, including a mid-90s fastball with good bite on his breaking pitches. A 25th-round pick by St. Louis in 2019, McFarlane should be in Miami’s weekend rotation by 2021.
Garland is similar to Van Belle — super competitive with a good mix of pitches.
DiMare said whomever doesn’t get the Friday night job among Van Belle, McMahon and Cecconi will be disappointed because all three are capable of holding that spot.
“I want them to be a little (angry),” DiMare said. “But, ultimately, they all have to accept their roles.”
The Canes lost two valuable bullpen men to the draft: saves leader Greg Veliz and middle reliever Mark Mixon.
Veliz (2-1, 2.55, 9 saves) was drafted in the 15th round by the Angels. Batters hit just .179 against him in three years at Miami. Mixon (2.33 ERA in 27 innings) was drafted in the 26th round by the Dodgers. The sidewinding right hander struck out 28 batters in 27 innings.
Fortunately for the Canes, they have an experienced closer in junior Daniel Federman (3-5, 3.51, 7 saves).
“He’s got great command of three pitches,” Arteaga said. “He works off his changeup and slider, but he can also spot his fastball in the low- to mid-90s. He’s effective against righties and lefties.”
Assuming Federman holds the job, the set-up candidates would include the pitchers not deployed as the midweek starter as well as two-way talent JP Gates, a sophomore with closer’s stuff who had more success as a hitter last season.
In addition, sophomore Alex Ruiz (1.04 ERA in 8.2 innings) made strides this fall in his effort for an expanded role, and junior Albert Maury (5.87 ERA) seems finally back to form after elbow surgery following his successful freshman season.
Meanwhile, freshman Carson Palmquist could find a role as a lefty specialist.
“He’s got an almost sidearm delivery,” Arteaga said. “We’re very excited about him. He’s an uncomfortable at-bat for lefty hitters.”
Defensive-minded catcher Michael Amditis is gone after getting drafted in the 21st round by the Cleveland Indians. He threw out 36 percent of base stealers and made second-team all-ACC despite modest numbers on offense — .273/.375/.436 with 7 homers.
Amditis’ departure opens the way for sophomore Adrian Del Castillo, Miami’s three-hole hitter who played a lot of right field last season and impressed everyone with his bat.
Del Castillo hit .331/.418/.576 with 12 homers in 61 starts. He also led the team in doubles (22) and RBIs (72), earning freshman All-America honors.
When Del Castillo needs a rest, the Canes are thrilled to have Jared Thomas, a 6-foot, 180-pound freshman from California who looks and runs like a center-fielder, which happens to be his former position.
“Jared’s a stud,” Lopez said. “He’s a hard-nosed kid with a cannon arm. He can catch and throw, and he hits from the left side.”
DiMare said Thomas was Miami’s most impressive freshman this fall, and the freshman could also factor in at DH and right field.
Miami’s depth at catcher includes junior Isaac Quinones and freshman Daniel Labrador, but the big thing to watch here will be Del Castillo’s defensive development.
Del Castillo spent the summer working on his flexibility, and he used the fall to improve his throwing. His blocking was already a strength.
He appears to be on the same path as former Canes catcher Zack Collins, who was an immediate star offensively and worked on his defense over time, becoming a first-round pick in 2016 and making his major league debut his past June.
Initially, Garrett Kennedy was Miami’s catcher while Collins was used at first base and DH, and perhaps a similar path to the majors can be blazed by Del Castillo.
“I think Del is ahead of where Zack was defensively his sophomore year,” DiMare said. “Del is a pure hitter, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a top-10 pick in 2021.”
Miami returns four standout infielders in junior first baseman Alex Toral, sophomore second baseman Anthony Vilar, junior shortstop Freddy Zamora and junior third baseman Raymond Gil.
“All we have to do is stay out of their way,” Lopez joked.
In actuality, new infield coach Matt Cleveland worked that foursome diligently this fall with the goal of defensive improvement.
Offensively, Toral was a game-changer last season with an ACC-best 24 homers, 67 RBIs, .400 on-base and a team-high .656 slugging percentage. He started all 61 of Miami’s games at first base, and his homers ranked third in the nation as well as second in Canes history.
Vilar also started 61 games, including 50 at second base. He batted .291 and tied for the team lead with 22 multi-hit games.
Zamora, who is Miami’s best bunter, started 50 games and hit .296 despite missing one month in the middle of the season due to injury. One of his highlights came on March 9, when he slugged a two-run, walk-off homer to beat Georgia Tech.
Defensively, Zamora made huge strides this fall, especially with his footwork.
“Freddy was our best position player this fall,” DiMare said. “Del is our best hitter, but Freddy is our top guy overall. He should be one of the best shortstops in the country this season.”
Gil, who came back this fall sleeker and stronger, made 56 starts and hit .318 with 14 doubles, 13 homers and 44 RBIs. One of his highlights was a 5-for-5 game in a win at Wake Forest.
For infield depth, Miami could turn to a pair of juniors: Tyler Paige and Josh Lauck.
Paige is a solid defender and a skilled bunter who missed the last two months of the 2019 due to an arm injury.
Lauck is a junior-college transfer who played for ex-Hurricanes infielder Bobby Hill. Lauck, who made first-team all-conference at Mission College, is athletic with pop in his bat.
Sophomore center fielder and leadoff man Jordan Lala returns after making 60 starts and stealing 28 bases in 33 attempts. He led the team in steals and also runs scored (68).
Lala’s team-best .446 on-base percentage sets the tone for Miami’s dangerous lineup, and the 5-10, 175-pounder also cracked four homers.
“Jordan doesn’t get enough credit for his bat-to-ball skills,” Lopez said. “He has gotten stronger and has come back hungrier. It’s impressive the way he manipulates the barrel to make consistent contact.
“He’s very confident, and we love that about him.”
Junior left fielder Gabe Rivera became a starter midway through last season and began to live up to his dynamic talent. The 5-11, 215-pounder made 29 starts. He hit .290/.374/.590 with seven homers, 31 RBIs and a 6-for-6 performance on steal attempts.
“Rivera’s power is ridiculous,” Lopez said. “He just needs to get more consistent.”
With Del Castillo shifting from right field to catcher, junior Tony Jenkins will get another chance after making 51 starts in his first two years at Miami. Jenkins can run — he stole nine bases in 11 attempts — and field (just two errors). But he hit just .268 with a .330 slugging percentage, and Miami will want to see improvement as a hitter.
Senior Chad Crosbie had a strong fall after making some adjustments at the plate, which helped him produce some impressive at-bats.
But Crosbie hit just .200 in 41 games last season, including 15 starts, and right field appears to be Jenkins’ position to lose.
“Tony is probably one of our best defenders,” Lopez said. “He can be great if stays away from nagging injuries.”
Lefty-swinging Gates will be the primary DH after an impressive freshman season, hitting .340/.371/.510 in 42 games, including 38 starts.
“JP is strong,” Lopez said of Gates, a 6-1, 210-pounder. “It sounds different when JP hits one.”
If Gates were to get hurt, Miami could turn to redshirt freshman Luis Tuero, who hit .333/.400/.417 with two homers in 14 games last season, including 11 starts, before going down with a knee injury.
Tuero, who bats left handed, got hurt last year while doing some outfield work before a game at North Carolina. He’s now had both his knees operated on, but Lopez believes he can still be effective.
“There’s not much swing and miss with him,” Lopez said. “He can drive a pitcher crazy with the way he battles.”