In the top of the fourth inning Miami stole the game and never looked back. The Rodriguez twins reached on singles and before Tennessee hurler Brian Gates could recall the opening line of "Rocky Top," Miami third baseman Kevin Howard took his first pitch deep over the right field wall. Behind 4-3, the Canes swiped momentum for good. Any Volunteer in the stands who thought otherwise was convinced 30 seconds later when "Mr. Omaha 2001" Danny Matienzo went yard for the third time in three games. 4-4, and all downhill from there. The Canes smelled blood and Tennessee assumed that "deer caught in the headlights" role.
Miami was tagged early and just when Tennessee could've gone for the kill, Kevin Howard responded as so many Canes have all season. All week in Omaha it has taken a little spark to get that Miami fire burning. New heroes step up daily. On Thursday, there were no individuals who deserve to be singled out. This was completely a team effort.
Who would be deserving of this game ball? There is a strong argument for Kevin Howard getting the party started with his three run blast. But was that anymore important than Charlton Jimerson's base stealing or headfirst dive under the tag for the sixth run? What about pitcher Dan Smith coming in with the bases loaded and getting out of the inning while cooling the red-hot Volunteer bats? No Hurricane baller deserves any more love than the next. Team unity and confidence in each other is what has this aggressive squad 3-0 and playing for the championship on Saturday. Complete belief in each other with an attitude of selflessness and invincibility is why Miami will take out Stanford for the 2001 National Championship.
These Canes cannot remember losing. Where were you on May 4, 2001? How did you feel that day? Can't remember, can you? That was sixteen wins and no losses ago for these 2001 Canes. Momentum has continuously built and there is no dampening of Miami's spirits. They are almost too confident for their own good. If this season weren't one game away from completion, fans would already wonder when the ride would come to an end. They'd have to hit a slump eventually, right? Almost any squad in America would have appeared concerned down 4-0 to a Tennessee team that had posted 42 runs in three games. What was the Canes response? Never flinch. Come out swinging. Resume control.
Take nothing away from Saturday's opponent Stanford. They earned their way into this title game with victories over Tulane and Cal State Fullerton. The Cardinal is a College World Series veteran and puts together a strong squad every season. They have handled Cal State Fullerton several times in 2001. The same Titans team that swept the Canes at Mark Light Stadium a few months back. The Cardinal even pulled a hat trick and stuck it to Miami archrival Florida State in a three game series in Palo Alto back in February. On many levels The Cardinal should be able to trade blows with the Canes in the title game. On paper the game is almost even. But how do you measure heart? Simple -- you can't. The only way to reward Miami's grit and soul is with the 2001 National Championship trophy.
Miami has definitely suited up a more talented line up in the past. Where are the Pat Burrells, Aubrey Huffs, Jason Michaels and Bobby Hills this season? Where are the record breakers, the All-Americans and number one draft picks? Who cares. Sometimes too much hype results in too much pressure. Suit up nine guys on a level playing field with a sixteen game win streak and a "never say die" mentality and you have the 2001 Canes. A squad nine innings from yet another championship ring.
How could anyone bet against a team with Miami's grit? A team that always finds a way. A team always one pitch away from a game changing play. Forget going away quietly, these Canes flat out will not go away. USC and Tennessee tried to mount early rallies only to have their heart broken by Miami's scrappers. Stanford doesn't have Miami's heart. No way does the Cardinal want this game as bad as the Canes. Yes, Stanford has added incentive after losing last season's title game, but that will only carry a team so far. They lack the hunger and intensity that the Canes have harnessed and used to their advantage. Sure, the Cardinal came from behind against Tulane in their first test in Omaha. Since then, they have cruised by regular season foe Cal State Fullerton in low scoring, low energy games. If Stanford finds a way to keep it close against Miami, they can hang in there. If the Canes are to blow it open at any point of the game, the Cardinal will come apart at the seams.
When Saturday rolls around the Canes must do the following to do away with the Cardinal:
Stay within their personalities. Don't change a thing. Miami style baseball is solely responsible for the sixteen game win streak and the swagger since stepping off the plane in Omaha. No superstition or rally caps necessary. This Hurricane squad believes in themselves and each other. Whenever ESPN cameras have panned the faces in that dugout, winning or losing, everyone is all smiles. You can almost smell the confidence. There is no fear and always a sense of composure. No deficit is too big to overcome and no lead is too large to just sit on. When down, mount a rally. When leading, score some insurance runs and go for the kill. Always remain the aggressor.
The Canes must remember what got them to the title game. Speed kills and having a team chock full of incredible base runners and stealers has been the intangible in so many close games this season. Guys like Charlton Jimerson and Javy Rodriguez need to rattle Stanford's pitcher - catcher duo with aggressive base running. Don't let the Cardinal get comfortable. Break their routine before they get into one.
Play a physical game as opposed to a mental one. Miami's meat and potatoes, blue collared, hard working attitude is their key to success. There is not much typical baseball strategizing going on game in and game out. It never gets to that point. Every action receives its proper reaction. The opponent goes up 4-0, Miami responds with seven in the next inning before mentally accepting they are behind and must find a way to rally. Saturday is not the time to begin over thinking or over strategizing. Every man must carry his own weight and be ready to step up and assume the hero role at any moment.
With a rested bullpen, Coach Morris cannot afford to let his pitchers take a beating. Did Kiki Bengochea stay in too long against the Volunteers? If Miami ended up falling 4-3, one would obviously say "yes." When the squad ends up on the winning end of a 12-6 contest, no one second-guesses a thing. Visibly rattled in the third inning, down 3-0 with no outs and bases loaded, Coach Morris finally went to Dan Smith. With Brian Walker warming up in the second inning, on might've wondered why BW or Tom Farmer didn't get the start over Bengochea in the first place. Until Miami bats came alive in the fourth inning it looked like the Hurricanes' pitching strategy was about to self implode and there would be a Friday game against Tennessee's team of destiny.
With Tom Farmer on the mound and Walker, Smith, DeBold, Cohn and Huguet fully rested, there is no reason to defensively give this game away. Miami bats going ice cold should be the only thing keeping this Hurricane squad from its fourth National Championship.
Come Saturday afternoon the Canes should hit the ground running. With momentum on their side coupled with this season's resilient attitude and never say die style of play, Miami should top Stanford for the 2001 National Championship. Treat Saturday's contest as they have treated every game since the regional opener against Bucknell.
Never let complacency set in, never see any deficit as too large to overcome and see every opportunity as the one that could possibly break the game wide open. It almost sounds too simple. On Saturday we will see if it is easier said than done.