Up In Arms

Before the University of Miami baseball team threw a pitch there were plenty of questions swirling around on how effective the Hurricanes pitching staff would be this season. But after nine games the Hurricanes have provided some answers that are to coach Jim Morris' liking.

"You know how many times I've told you this game starts and ends with pitching and defense," says Morris. "And right now we're pitching great. We've had some guys who have really stepped up."

The Hurricanes (7-2), ranked 13th in Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball, are off to a fast start, which includes a series sweep of the San Diego State Aztecs last weekend at home. And many point to the team's turn around so far on the mound.

After struggling to find any pitching consistency from a slew of youngsters last season, which ended with the Hurricanes missing the College World Series for only the second time in nine years, Miami has compiled a team ERA of 3.22 and seems to have found a formidable trio to carry the rotation in junior Dan Touchet (2-0, 1.93), and sophomores Vince Bongiovanni (2-1, 1.59) and Brandon Camardese (1-0, 1.74).

Entering this weekend's (Feb. 28- Mar. 2) three-games series against the Citadel at Mark Light Field, Miami pitchers have allowed 30 runs all season, while Touchet, Bongiovanni and Camardese have combined to strike out 54 hitters and surrendered nine earned runs in eight starts. Quite a contrast from a year ago when the Hurricanes finished the season with a team ERA of 5.23.

"It was a question coming in and we heard a lot about it from different people," said Touchet, the staff ace. "But I knew all along what these guys were capable of- so it's really not a surprise. We're not thinking as much out there. We're letting the game come to us."

Touchet notes that the biggest difference in the early-season success the pitchers have enjoyed is their ability to get ahead of opposing hitters and in turn being able to dictate the rest of the game. Touchet added that by throwing strikes early in the count the Hurricanes have avoided the struggles that persisted them last season. Miami's staff issued 245 walks in 2002.

"The biggest difference not only for all the pitchers but myself as well is that we're throwing first-pitch strikes. And that makes a whale of a different because you keep hitters guessing when you do that," said Touchet. "We're going to have to keep it up if we expect to get to Omaha."

Touchet was handed a vote of confidence by Morris several weeks before the opener as he was named the No. 1 starter in the rotation. And the 6-2, 207-pounder hasn't disappointed. Touchet, who ranks fifth on the team in ERA, has 22 strikeouts and three walks in three starts, good for an eye opening strikeout-walk ratio of over 3-to-1. Touchet has held opponents to a .256 batting average. But out of 20 hits that he has allowed seven have been for extra bases, including two homeruns.

Touchet is still working on changing that.

"The key for me personally is keeping the ball down," Touchet said. "If I do that I should be alright."

Bongiovanni has the best ERA of all three starters and secured his status behind Tochet. The second-year right-hander is second -behind Touchet- on the team with 21 strikeouts and opposing hitters have a .156 batting average against him. At 6-5, Bongiovanni has been regularly clocked in the 90's.

After being drafted out of high school, Camardese came to Miami with loads of expectations- he's starting to display some of that potential. In two appearances, including one start, the left-hander has recorded 11 strikeouts in 10 innings of work. Despite perhaps the best assortment of pitches on the staff, Camardese tends to lose command as evidenced by two hit-by-pitches. But he no doubt could be crucial to Miami's chances of advancing to the CWS.

Sophomore right-hander Ryan Dixon (0-0, 13.50) will fill the role of fourth starter.

"This could really be a dominating staff," said Touchet. "Some of the guys are still learning but at the same time they all have nasty stuff."

That includes junior left-hander J.D. Cockroft who has done a masterful job of stepping in for closer George Huguet. Cockroft, who recently picked up his first save of the season, has already picked up two wins and has recorded 13 strikeouts in 15 innings pitched. He has an ERA of 1.20. Huguet, who was suspended indefinitely by Morris last week, did not start the season because of a shoulder injury.

Citadel (2-3) has struggled with an SEC-loaded schedule, opening the season with consecutive losses to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. The Bulldogs, who hold a 2-1 edge in the all-time series against Miami, have visited Coral Gables on two previous occasions to participate in regionals. In their most recent trip the Bulldogs captured the regional by defeating Miami twice and advanced to the CWS for the first time in school history.

The Hurricanes defeated the Bulldogs in the opening round in 1979. The Bulldogs are led by freshmen centerfielder Trent Weathers (.444 batting average and 8 hits) and junior first baseman Chip Cannon (.444 batting average, eight hits and six RBI). The Citadel will oppose the Hurricanes with senior Matt Harner (1-0, 2.45), sophomore Jon Ellis (1-0, 2.38) and freshman left-hander Ryan Owens (0-1, 9.82). Citadel coach Fred Jordan was a member of the Bulldog's 1979 team that played in the Atlantic Regional in Miami.

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