Looking for a Strong Finish

University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris always points out the importance of making sure everything is running smoothly at the end of the regular season. And the Hurricanes have no question delivered by posting victories in 15 of their last 19 games, including a current four-game winning streak.

Miami (41-11), ranked No. 3 by Collegiate Baseball and ESPN/Sports Weekly, is in no danger of missing the postseason and will likely end up hosting a regional when the sites are announced next week.

But the Hurricanes could get quite a tune-up this weekend when they host No. 11 Long Beach State (36-16) in a three-game series to close out the regular season. Despite heading to Miami on a four-game losing streak the 49ers feature one of the premier pitching staffs in the nation and eight starters hitting .300 or better.

Just the type of team Morris loves to see this time of year.

"I like playing them because they're a very good team, they're well-coached and they put pressure on you," said Morris, who will send senior left-hander J. D. Cockroft (7-4, 2.76 ERA) to the mound in tonight's opener against Jered Weaver (14-0, 1.25) at Mark Light Field. "It's definitely challenge and helps you get ready for the tournament."

After being held to five runs in three games against North Carolina the Hurricanes bounced back with 20 in a sweep over Ball State last week. Freshman left-fielder Jon Jay, second on the team with a .364 batting average, broke out of a slump by going 8 for 15 with four RBIs in the series. Catcher Erick San Pedro added four hits and three RBIs.

Senior first baseman Jim Burt has a team-leading 11 home runs, 58 RBIs, 22 doubles and 73 hits.

"We're in the tournament, but this is a very important series because we're playing one of the best teams in the country," said Burt. "We need to play well against these guys if we expect to do anything in the postseason."

Long Beach State, coming off three straight losses to Cal State Fullerton, will be looking to cool the Hurricanes offense with a trio of starters that has combined for 31 victories and carried a staff that has the third-best ERA (2.83) in the nation.

But it all starts with the hard-throwing Weaver, a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. Weaver, expected to be selected No. 1 in the upcoming MLB amateur draft, leads the country in wins, ERA and strikeouts per nine innings (13.4).

He has recorded 14 or more strikeouts seven times this season, including 17 against Pacific and 16 against Wichita State. Weaver is just 18 K's short of 400 as a collegiate. Left-handers Cesar Ramos (10-4, 2.09) and Jason Vargas (7-6, 3.94) will follow Weaver in the series.

"There's no question we have our work cut out for us," said Morris. "This might be one of those weekends where we might have to manufacture everything we get."

Vargas (4 HRs, 30 RBIs) leads Long Beach State with a .353 batting average. John Bowker (.335) ranks first in home runs (5) and RBIs (35).

Miami, winners of six of the last nine against Long Beach State, leads the all-time series 13-8. The 49ers are 15-8 on the road this season.

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