Expectations high as opening day approaches

The Light is just days away from turning on for the spring.

With the season opening up against Rutgers on Friday, the Hurricanes baseball team held media day at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field on Wednesday. Miami will look to rebound from a 2012 season that ended earlier than expected with a loss at home against Missouri State in the NCAA Regionals.

Coach Jim Morris emphasized that although this year’s team is young, the expectations for those in and around the program will remain the same.

“The expectations have been set over the past 40 years,” he said. “Expectations are that you win, you get it done, go to the NCAA Tournament, which we’ve gone to 40 years in a row, and then you go to Omaha. And once in a while, you win it.”

Because the team is so young this year (12 freshmen and six sophomores are listed on the official roster), Morris would not commit to a specific starting lineup just yet. However, he mentioned third baseman Brad Fieger, center fielder Dale Carey and right fielder Chantz Mack would start, while everyone else is “fighting for a job.”

Morris also said the starting lineup used on Opening Night may not be the one used the rest of the season, or even the rest of the weekend.

“Right now, you’re experimenting, trying to see what you have,” he said.

Even with the uncertainty that lies around the Hurricanes early on, the sense of urgency is still abundant in the clubhouse. With the Canes missing from the College World Series since 2008, the older players are adamant about getting to experience Omaha in their last season.

“I’m so excited. It’s my last season here. I haven’t been to Omaha yet,” said Mack, who has been recovering from injury and is expected to start on Friday. “With the alumni game last week, all of them were telling us to get back on track and get to Omaha. I just want to uphold the legacy and get back there. We haven’t been there in four years.”

Miami is optimistic about some of its younger prospects. Freshman shortstop Brandon Lopez and first baseman/outfielder David Thompson have stood out thus far. Mack calls Lopez the “real deal,” praising his range and arm strength as “among the best on the team.”

Thompson, a two-sport athlete (he also is listed on the football roster) coming off shoulder surgery, earned praise from Morris.

“The fact is the guy can hit,” he said. “I think his future is at third base, but he’s not quite ready for that after surgery. But it hasn’t affected his swing. If you can hit, we’ll find a place for you to play.”

Miami will also lean on an inexperienced starting rotation to open the season while junior Bryan Radziewski and senior Eric Whaley recover from injury. Sophomore left-hander Chris Diaz will get the Friday start, with last season’s midweek starter Javi Salas and sophomore Andrew Suarez rounding out the weekend rotation.

“He’s got a good fastball and a good knuckle curve. Best breaking ball on the team,” Morris said of Diaz. “He’s pitched better, he deserves to pitch on Friday nights, and that’s why he’s pitching.”

Junior lefty AJ Salcines has been named Miami’s closer. Salcines stepped in as closer late in the season last year and has earned preseason All-ACC accolades.

“AJ is the man,” Salas said. “He doesn’t care that he doesn’t throw the hardest or may not be the tallest or the most intimidating, but he gets the job done. He’s a really mellow guy, but on the mound he’s someone else entirely.”

With the losses of senior standouts Peter O’Brien, Rony Rodriguez and E.J. Encinosa, and the uncertainty that surrounds this team early on, the Canes enter the season ranked outside the top 25. Whaley, however, said the team will impress.

“This year the team seems a little hungrier. Playing with a chip on our shoulder almost,” he said. “We have a lot to prove, not even being ranked in the top 25. We want to prove to everybody that we’re capable of going out there and beating anyone on any given day.”