Quite A Task For Starters

With two national championships in their possession since 1999, the University of Miami baseball team isn't used to being overlooked. But coming off a subpar season last season that did not include a customary trip to the College World Series, the Hurricanes will open the 2003 trying to make up some ground.

"I guess people don't think much about Miami this season," says junior first baseman Jim Burt. "But like every year we have a tough schedule and we can make a statement right away."

Isn't that right.

The Hurricanes, who missed the CWS for only the second time in nine years under coach Jim Morris after losing in the South Carolina Regional, were nowhere to be found in Baseball America's preseason poll, slipped in at 20th in the Baseball Weekly/ESPN preseason poll and have garnered little attention outside of Coral Gables.

But Miami, returning four position players and introducing a crop of talented freshmen, including 2002 Class 1A player of the year Gaby Sanchez, can start changing that perception Wednesday night, Feb. 5, as they host in-city rival Florida International at Mark Light Stadium to open the season.

The Golden Panthers, coming off a sweep over Eastern Michigan, are 5-0 and received 12 votes in the most recent Baseball Weekly/ESPN rankings. Despite having to battle the Hurricanes for top billing on an annual basis and trailing in the all-time series (83-20) between the teams, which includes a split in four meetings last season, FIU is primed to start closing the gap with Miami.

Whoever shows up tonight night might have a little trouble recognizing the Hurricanes who will have new position players at third base (Sanchez), second base (Adam Ricks), right field (Brian Barton) and left field (Tom Shannon). FIU arrives with a stingy pitching staff that has held opponents to a .197 batting average and already recorded a shutout. FIU pitchers have surrendered just 12 runs in five games. "We've done a great job of keeping guys off base," says FIU ace Josh Banks. "That's important against Miami because they always have speed at the top (of the order)."

The Golden Panthers have a team ERA of 2.30. Senior outfielder Adam Summerell, who leads the team with a .500 batting average, is one of five players hitting .333 or better for the Golden Panthers. Miami will turn to junior right-hander Dan Touchet in hopes of stopping the FIU bats. Touchet was 6-2 with a 4.41 ERA last season. UM junior Jim Burt will be making his debut at first base. Burt, expected to provide a good portion of the team's power numbers, hit .322 with nine home runs and 48 runs batted in last year.

As usual the game will feature a slew of local players. Both rosters combined have 26 players from the Miami area. Freshman right-hander Frank Gonzalez, a Monsignor Pace graduate, will start for the Golden Panthers. Gonzalez, who has pitched 3.1 innings this season, will be making his first start of the season.

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