Canes breathe sigh of relief

If there was ever a time the University of Miami baseball team desperately needed some quality production out of their bullpen it was in the super regional against North Carolina State last weekend.

After riding the arms of the starting rotation for most of the Coral Gables regional, including a strong seven-inning outing from sophomore right-hander Vince Bongiovanni in the opening round and a complete game one-hit effort by staff ace J. D. Cockroft against Florida Atlantic in the fourth game of the regional, the Hurricanes starters ran into some trouble against the Wolfpack, keeping a potential trip to the College World Series in jeopardy.

But the Hurricanes can breathe a sigh of relief after eliminating N. C. State in two games and clinching their 20th trip to the CWS in school history. And Shawn Valdes-Fauli, George Huguet and Alex Blanco, among others, are a major reason why the Hurricanes are packing their bags for Omaha.

Huguet and Valdes-Fauli teamed to close the door on the Wolfpack in the final game of the series after left-handed starter Brandon Camardese exited with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth inning and the Hurricanes holding on to a 4-1 lead. Huguet and Valdes-Fauli combined to pitch six innings, allowing three runs and eight hits while recording six strikeouts. And their contributions came during crucial situations in the game.

After showing signs of slowing down in the fifth, Camardese opened the sixth by walking Chad Orvella and Colt Morton and hitting Justin Riley with a pitch to load the bases. That was enough to convince UM coach Jim Morris that Camardese was done for the day. Smart move.

Huguet, making his first appearance in three weeks after fracturing his right hand, recorded the first out of the inning by striking out Joe Gaetti. UM left-fielder Joey Hooft threw out Riley at the plate after a run had scored on an RBI single by Dustin Knight. But Huguet avoided any further damage by ending the inning with a double play ground ball.

Huguet allowed two runs on a hit, two walks and two hit batsmen in the seventh, leaving with the score tied 4-4 and the Wolfpack threatening to take the lead for the first time in the game.

Enter Valdes-Fauli. The sophomore right-hander, who before Huguet's injury had filled the role of set-up man for the Hurricanes, closed the seventh inning without allowing the Wolfpack to jump in front.

Valdes-Faul (5-0, 3.51, four saves) added two more scoreless innings before N. C. State tied the contest in the bottom of the 10th on a Mike Maynor bloop single to left. But Valdes-Fauli regrouped to end the inning by striking out Adam Hargrave, denying the Wolfpack the lead a second time.

He closed out the game by recording three outs in the bottom of the 11th. In all, Valdes-Fauli pitched a career-high 4 1/3 innings, surrendering six hits and one run. Although he admitted to tiring in extra innings, Valdes-Fauli knew the importance of his outing.

"I was just going as hard as I could for as long as I could," said Valdes-Fauli, who went 1-1 with a 4.29 ERA in 31 appearances as a true freshman last season. "The team was counting on me to go out there and get the job done. I just kept thinking that I couldn't go out there and blow the game. We worked to hard to get to this point."

"Shawn was out there longer than I thought he would be," said Morris, who checked with Valdes-Fauli between the 10th and 11th innings to see if he could stay in the game. "He really showed a lot of guts with so much on the line. I really can't say enough about the way Shawn pitched."

Blanco, a second-year player who had never pitched before this season, entered the first game of the series with the Hurricanes trailing 9-3 in the top of the sixth inning. Blanco took over for Cockroft and pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings while recording two strikeouts. Valdes-Fauli followed with a scoreless top of the ninth before freshman shortstop Ryan Braun hit a walk-off home run to give the Hurricanes a 10-9 victory.

"In that situation I was just trying to hold them and give my team a chance to get back in the game," said Blanco, who hit .278 in 18 games last season as a middle infielder. "I haven't really been pitching that long so this really is going to lift my confidence."

Valdes-Fauli clinched the Coral Gables regional with a 3 2/3 innings effort against Florida. He allowed two runs and two hits in the championship game against the Gators. Left-handers Alex Perez and Israel Chirino could also play a major role for the Hurricanes in the CWS. Prez (2-2, 6.26 ERA) has allowed 33 runs and 49 his in 41 2/3 innings, while Chirino (2-0, 5.59 ERA) last appearance was in the Coral Gables regional. He allowed three runs and three hits in 2/3 of an inning.

Valdes-Fauli has already experienced the feeling of pitching in front of a supportive home crowd at Mark Light Field, regularly averaging between 1,000-2.000 fans a game. Now, he is off to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha where over 25,000 fans will attend each CWS game.

"Obviously there is going to be a lot of pressure. I mean this is the College World Series," said Valdes-Fauli. "But we can't get caught up in all that. We have to go out there and not lose focus of why were here."

In the entire super regional, the Hurricanes bullpen allowed three runs and 10 hits in 9 2/3 innings pitched. But there's a good chance the main core of Miami's relief pitchers will have to duplicate or even surpass their super regional performance in Omaha in order to give the Canes a shot at winning the national championship.

"We realize that there is a lot of work left. It doesn't matter who Coach Morris calls on we all have to be ready to perform," said Valdes-Fauli. "It doesn't get any bigger than this right now. Everybody has to step it up a notch."

Said Morris: "It always comes down to pitching. Whoever gets the most out of their arms is probably going to win the whole thing."

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