Cockroft Taking Advantage of Second Chance

Angry. Betrayed. Unappreciated. University of Miami senior left-hander J. D. Cockroft was left to deal with a roller coaster of emotions in total darkness. Cockroft could not understand why he would be left searching for answers after providing so much.

"I was really, really down. When it first happened I was really frustrated and a bunch of emotions were just going through my head," said Cockroft, who will be on the mound tonight when the fourth-ranked Hurricanes (33-9) open a three-game series against Jacksonville (21-25) at Mark Light Field. "But I really wanted it back and the only way I could get it back was to pitch so I really worked hard to make it happen."

Cockroft (5-3, 2.67 ERA) has definitely made it happen. The crafty southpaw, who depends on pitch location and getting ahead of opposing hitters in order to be successful, will enter his start against the Dolphins with a consecutive scoreless streak of 21 2/3 innings. Cockroft, who has held opponents to a .247 batting average, has not allowed a run in his last three starts. The last time Cockroft surrendered anything was during a relief appearance against Florida State in early April. At first glance, it would seem it's been smooth sailing for Cockroft at the top of Miami's rotation this season.

Wrong.

The quiet and unassuming kid from Foster City, Calif., opened the season with a subpar performance against Florida before losing to Tennessee in his second start. But the roof really collapsed in his next as Cockroft allowed eight runs and eight hits in just 2 1/3 innings of work against FIU. At that point, Cockroft was 0-2 and UM coach Jim Morris had seen enough - his ace was headed to the bullpen.

"He was pretty upset when he took him out of the rotation. I wasn't on his Christmas list at that particular time," said Morris. "But he took it to heart and busted his butt from that point on. He's been an outstanding pitcher for us, I just think he needed somebody to kick-start him a little bit."

For almost three weeks Cockroft was reduced to bullpen duty. He earned a midweek victory against South Florida after going six innings and recording two strikeouts. But Cockroft would make three more relief appearances before getting a chance to start against the Seminoles. And he's been close to perfect since. Cockroft has allowed just 11 hits and recorded 16 strikeouts in his last three starts after being reinserted atop the rotation.

"When it happened I felt like everything I had worked so hard for was just slipping away from me. You know I had a great season last year," says Cockroft. "My big thing this year was to prove that last year wasn't a fluke. It was disappointing, but I just kept working hoping that things would work out."

Cockroft was 11-3 with a 2.72 ERA last season, including a one-hit shutout off Florida Atlantic in the Coral Gables Regional, and cemented his status as the staff ace when the Hurricanes needed him most. Despite being expected to serve as the team's closer, Cockroft assumed the No. 1 starter's role just weeks into the season after an elbow injury sidelined Dan Touchet.

He gave the Hurricanes that and more for much of the season before tailing off in the post-season. After blanking the Owls, Cockroft allowed 19 runs in his last two starts of the season, which included a 10-run outburst by the Texas Longhorns in the College World Series.

Cockroft wasn't concerned because he felt he had secured his place in the rotation. But that changed earlier this season when he was pulled from the starting rotation and sent to the bullpen - after just three starts. Morris made the decision to pull Cockroft from the rotation after the 6-2, 205-pounder was pounded by FIU.

"I was trying to be a little too fine with all my pitches and that's why I think I was running into some trouble," says Cockroft. "It's made me more aggressive and want to go after guys even though I'm a finesse pitcher. It's kind of minor leagues, if you're not doing well or producing you get traded or released real quick. So I've learned that you have to be consistent and at the same time not afraid of showing your stuff out there."

Despite being sent to the bullpen, Cockroft credits Morris and pitching coach J. D. Arteaga for helping him stay confident throughout the entire process.

"I knew we weren't going to be in trouble because we have so many quality guys in our rotation," says Cockroft. "But Morris really encouraged me and let me know where I really belonged. J. D. also kind of kicked me in the butt because I really could have gone off the deep end."

While Cockroft continues to show he belongs in the rotation, the Hurricanes are doing everything to prove they are primed for Omaha. The Hurricanes, who haven't dropped consecutive games all season, have won 14 of their last 18, including a three-game sweep of Coastal Carolina last weekend.

One of the players responsible for the Hurricanes consistency is freshman left fielder Jon Jay. Jay, hitting .347 for the season, has been a spark plug at the top of the order for the Hurricanes with a .445 on-base percentage and 12 stolen bases. He has added 25 RBIs and 50 hits. Despite hitting just .243 in his last nine games (9 for 37, three RBIs), Morris values having Jay leading things off for Miami.

"I think Jon is at the top of the list of guys that have performed well. I wouldn't say that I'm surprised, but for a freshman to come in and do the things he's done is impressive," says Morris. "He brings a lot of different things to our ball club and doesn't really seem bothered playing in big games in front of big crowds. He's just one of those guys that comes to play."

The Dolphins, coming off a 7-4 loss to Georgia Southern on Tuesday, are led by Donald Brickle (.360) and Orlando Diaz (eight home runs, 40 RBIs). Jacksonville took two of three from the Hurricanes last season, but that could be difficult to match this time.

The Dolphins, 8-11 on the road this season, pitching staff (5.08 ERA) will have to contain a UM offense that is hitting a collective .329 and averaging nine runs a game. Miami has won 45 of 53 games against the Dolphins at Mark Light Field.

UM leads the all-time series 71-19.

Canes Time Top Stories