Morris Doesn't Have Arms In Place

University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris is confident that scoring runs won't be a problem for the Hurricanes during the upcoming season. But it's stopping the opposition from scoring that has Morris concerned less than nine days before the first pitch of the 2003 season is delivered.

Despite the departure of four of the five top batting average leaders in last year's starting line-up, Morris isn't losing sleep over the offense thanks to the development of players like Gaby Sanchez, Tom Shannon and Adam Ricks in the fall. But the same can't be said about the Hurricanes pitching staff, most importantly their starting rotation.

"Obviously the name of the game is pitching. If we don't throw strikes and get guys out we're not going to get very far," said Morris, beginning his 10th season at Miami. "And we have some spots in our rotation we need to fill. We have some good arms but I still don't know what's going to happen."

That's an understatement.

The Hurricanes enter the season with just one returning starter off of last year's squad and minus three rotation pitchers who combined to win 13 games in 2002.In lieu of Kiki Bengochea, Troy Robertson and T.J. Prunty, who are no longer with the team, the Hurricanes head into the season with a relatively inexperienced rotation. Of the seven pitchers that return this season only junior right-hander Dan Touchet has seen extensive work as a starter in the past. The others: Sophomore Vince Bongiovanni (1-4, 6.23 ERA) made four starts in 14 appearances a year ago, while left-hander Brandon Camardese (0-3, 7.18) made one start in 13 outings.

"It's a really a big question mark because of the experience factor," Morris said. "I'm hoping these boys come around sooner than later. We certainly have a lot of unanswered roles on our staff. "

Morris has not set the pitching rotation but has already told Touchet he will be the ace of the staff and will get the nod in the opener. Camardese, who at times struggled with his control last season, allowed 21 earned runs in 26.1 innings pitched last season after coming out of high school as a highly-touted prospect. Camardese surrendered 40 hits, including six doubles and six triples. While most of his innings were out of the bullpen, Camardese will likely open the season in the regular rotation. Bongiovanni, a hard-throwing right-hander, is the favorite behind Touchet and Camardese.

Bongiovanni can't wait to take the mound.

"When you're that close to making it to Omaha and don't make it that leaves a sour taste in your mouth," said Bongiovanni. "We really want to get back there. I can't see anything else happening."

Another pitcher that has been impressive and could see a lot of work is sophomore right-hander Ryan Dixon. The 6-2, 203-pounder made nine appearances out of the bullpen last year but displayed plenty of potential in over 18 innings of work. Dixon (0-0, 3.86) held the opponents to a .261 batting average while recording 12 strikeouts the entire season.

As if Morris didn't have enough to worry about the Hurricanes will be without junior closer George Huguet for at least the next three weeks. Huguet, a Third-Team All-America preseason selection who has 22 career saves, is suffering from a sore right elbow and is not throwing after meeting with doctors.

"It all depends," Morris said. "He could be back in three weeks or something like that."

In the meantime the closer's role has been handed to junior left-hander J. D. Cockroft. Cockroft, 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA last season, held opposing hitters to a .19o batting average. His earned-run-average (in 24.1 innings) was a career-best. UM will also have the services of returning pitchers Andrew Cohn (0-0, 5.27) and Shawn Valdes-Fauli (1-1, 4.29) out of the bullpen to go with newcomers Tom King and Alex Perez. Perez, a junior college All-American last year, could also picture into the rotation at some point in the season.

But Morris will undoubtedly rely heavily on Touchet, the lone returning starting pitcher from last year's squad, to carry the staff at the outset. Touchet, who started 15 games in 2002, was 6-2 with a 4.41 ERA last season and showed an ability to take over games with 78 strikeouts in 98 innings. Touchet said he would like to improve on keeping potential runs off base and making a better selection of pitches in critical situations. But he doesn't feel a world of pressure on his shoulders despite what's expected of him.

"It's a lot of responsibility but I think I can handle it," said Touchet. "I don't worry too much about it. It will take a total team effort to get to Omaha (College World Series)."

The Hurricanes held a ninth-inning lead in last year's South Carolina Regional before the Gamecocks rallied to deny the Hurricanes a trip back to Omaha.

"It's fresh in our memory," said Touchet. "We can't wait to get this thing started." The Hurricanes won't have to wait long.

Opening night for the Hurricanes is Wednesday, Feb. 5, when they host Florida International University at Mark Light Stadium. First pitch is at 7 p.m.

Canes Time Top Stories