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NCAA Baseball Tourney Preview: Miami-FL

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They've had winning streaks of 8, 8, 6, 5, and 7.  They lost one series all year...to #2 North Carolina.  They're 30-5 at home (29-3 against teams not named North Carolina).  They swept through the ACC tournament, going 4-0 and scoring 35 runs in the process.  Their team OPS is .978...which is a pretty good number for one star player.  They average 9 runs a game.  Their team ERA is less than 4.00...lower than Ole Miss's ace.  Um...they're really good.  They don't call me the best color guy in the business for nothing.

Season to Date

It's hard to go into too much detail about the ups and downs of a 47-8 season, but I'll try.  Miami started the year at #10 in the polls and instituted a steady crawl up the charts.  They began the season 25-2, with series wins over Cincinnati, Florida, Boston College, NC State, Wake Forest, Bethune-Cookman, Duke and Clemson.  Granted, it helps that all but two of these series were at home--the benefits of being in the warmest of warm-weather locations--but they continuously did what they needed to do in their move to #1.  They're battle tested--they're 19-8 in games decided by 4 runs or less.  Granted, this shows that they haven't just blown everybody on their schedule out of the water, which is a good thing for Mizzou, Ole Miss, and Bethune-Cookman, but it also shows that they don't panic in close situations.  They're 3-0 in extra innings and 5-3 in one-run games.  They've won games 1-0 and 12-11.

Okay, I could go on about how well they've done, but let's focus on this: when #2 North Carolina took two of three from them in Coral Gables at the end of the season, they did it by scores of 10-6 and 12-11.  Their other losses have come by scores of 6-2, 11-10, 6-3, 9-5, 6-3, and 7-6.  Opponents have gone 0-for-the-season when scoring less than five runs.  If you're going to beat Miami, you're going to have to score...a lot.

Pitching

That said...what are your odds of scoring a lot?  Well...not great.  Assuming they send their ace Chris Hernandez (11-0, 2.44 ERA, 97 K's, 92.1 innings, only 2 HR's allowed) to the mound against Bethune-Cookman on Friday, Mizzou would likely face one of the following starters over the weekend (if they earn the opportunity): sophomore Eric Erickson (7-1, 4.31 ERA, 56 K's in 62.2 innings...but 7 HRs allowed) or senior Enrique Garcia (6-2, 4.67 ERA...but with a .276 batting average against).  They're both relatively hittable, but then, so are most teams' #2 and #3 starters.  Even if you get hits off of them, you still have to prevent them from getting hits off of you.

The bullpen is anchored by a couple studs, sophomore setup man Kyle Bellamy, a 6'4, righty, and junior closer Carlos Gutierrez, a 6'3 righty.  They've combined for a 9-2 record, 14 saves, 115 K's over 91 innings, and a 2.37 ERA.  Opponents are batting .163 against Bellamy while striking out at a 1.5 K's/inning clip against Guiterrez.  You don't want to face either one of these guys if you're behind on the scoreboard.

Hitting

So when I was talking about Ole Miss' hitting yesterday, I listed all of their regulars who had at least a .900 OPS as their 'good hitters'.  Being that Miami's team OPS is an insane .978...yeah, they've got quite a few good hitters.  First, there's All-World junior 1B Yonder Alonso.  How did he follow up on a 2007 season that saw 2nd-team All-American honors and 18 HRs?  By batting .380 with an insane OPS of 1.341 (OBP: .542, SLG: .799...these are Barry-Bonds-at-his-peak numbers), 21 HRs and 66 RBIs.  His RBI total actually fell from 2007, likely due to the fact that he was walked 65 times, well over one per game.  Teams rightly chose to pitch around him, which was smart, but the 'Canes still scored a sick 9 runs a game because the rest of the lineup is only marginally worse.  There's junior 2B (and preseason All-American) Jamile Weeks, with an 1.114 OPS, 11 HRs, and 55 RBIs.  And of course Hickman grad Blake Tekotte (1.080 OPS, 10 HRs) behind the plate.  Oh yeah, and did I mention that Weeks (19 SBs) and Tekotte (25 SBs) are both threats on the base paths?  The fact that they have three other regulars--sophomore SS Ryan Jackson, junior OF Dennis Raben, and junior OF Dave DiNitale--with OPSs of over .900 is patently unfair.  The best-case scenario for Mizzou is, quite obviously, beating Ole Miss on Friday and sending Rick "Big Game" Zagone to the mound against the 'Canes on Saturday.  For Mizzou to win the region, they'll likely have to beat Miami twice, though...so even if Zagone pulls another clutch performance out of his posterior, we'll still have to hope that either Ian Berger or Nick Tepesch or Kelly Fick or Greg Folgia is able to keep this lineup under 10 runs.  It's always possible, but it's a lot to ask for.

Overall

Not much else to say here, is there?  The pitching's solid--good ace, two good relievers, a bunch of serviceable starters--and the offense is unbelievable.  They are capable of losing--they've done so 8 times--but there's very much a reason why Miami is the #1 overall seed.  This is not the same team that went 1-2 and bowed out quickly in the Columbia Regional last year...actually, it is.  Almost that entire team returned this season, and every single contributer, from the studs to the backups, improved in the offseason.  Mizzou's best chance here is if Tekotte rips his Hurricane Miami jersey off in the middle of the game to reveal a Mizzou jersey, throwing Tex Little into a fit of Jim Ross hysterics.  That, or blowing up their back-of-the-rotation starters a couple times.  Personally, I like the first idea better.

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