For Starters: UM Fully Armed

Right around this time last year University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris had no idea he would soon be scrambling to keep the Hurricanes pitching staff afloat. Initially, Morris had to deal with the resignation of longtime pitching coach Lazaro Collazo, who left after an investigation surrounding a privately-owned baseball school resulted in the Hurricanes being hit with minor NCAA sanctions.

Another blow came when staff ace Dan Touchet was lost for the season - shortly after the start of the season - as a result of elbow surgery. The closer's role was handed to Shawn Valdes-Fauli as George Huguet battled a shoulder injury for a large part of the season.

"Considering everything that went on with our pitchers I think we did a pretty good job of keeping things together," said Morris. "But you can have all the pitching you want, if you don't stay healthy you're going to have problems. That's something we hope to avoid this season."

One thing is certain: If the majority of UM pitchers can stay away from the surgeon's table there's a good chance they will be causing plenty of headaches for opposing hitters from the pitching mound. The Hurricanes, who finished fifth in last year's College World Series, will open the 2004 season ranked Co-No. 1 - along with Rice - by Collegiate Baseball and No. 3 by Baseball America in part because of one of the best pitching staffs in the nation. The Hurricanes return 11 pitchers from last year's squad, including their top three starting pitchers (J. D. Cockroft, Vince Bongiovanni, Brandon Camardese) and closer (Valdes-Fauli). Unlike 2003, Morris will have plenty of options when it comes to his pitching staff this season.

"It's a nice problem to have because as you know pitching is the key to winning and losing baseball games," Morris said.

Cockroft, who opened the 2003 season in the bullpen, responded with an 11-3 record and 2.72 ERA after being elevated to staff ace. Cockroft, a left-hander who relies on his breaking pitches for effectiveness, pitched a team-high 119 innings and added 94 strikeouts last season. Cockroft pitched a complete-game 1-0 shutout over Florida Atlantic in the Coral Gables Regional. Bongiovanni (8-4, 4.00), the power-pitcher in the staff, also missed several starts last season, while Camardese (9-2, 5.01) gives the Hurricanes a left-hander at the end of the rotation. Huguet and Valdes-Fauli will be first out of the bullpen.

"We probably won't need seven or eight innings from a starter every time he goes out there," said Morris.

Morris said recently he would stay with Cockroft, Bongiovanni and Camardese at the top of the rotation, while Touchet will be given a chance to spot start if he can stay injury-free. Sophomore Cesar Carillo had a solid fall camp and could eventually sneak into the rotation although Morris hasn't said it publicly. Freshmen pitchers Danny Gil (Miami Columbus) and Ricky Orta (Florida Christian) are also expected to pitch a significant amount of innings. Miami will be without freshman left-hander Scott Maine, who is scheduled for season-ending Tommy John surgery later this month.

BRAUN HURTING?

Sophomore shortstop Ryan Braun, the 2003 National Freshman Player of the Year, fielded groundballs from his position, but did not throw or swing a bat during an intrasquad scrimmage. Braun, a right-hander, was asked by a bystander during practice if he would be ready for the start of the season.

"I'll be fine," said Braun, who led the Hurricanes in homeruns (17), RBIs (74), batting average (.364), hits (88) and slugging percentage (.665) last season.

COMPETITION IN LF

Some reshuffling in the Hurricanes outfield has created an opening for the starting left field job. With Danny Figueroa, who was expected to start in center field, likely out for the entire season after having arm surgery and Brian Barton moving from right to center field there are several players in the running for the spot in left field. Among the candidates: Junior Richard Giannotti and freshman Jon Jay. Morris has been impressed with Jay, who had a strong fall camp at the plate.

"Jon has really shown he can do a lot of things at this level, but remember it's early. We haven't even played a game yet," said Morris.

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