Commentary

Hurricanes ride deep lineup, tough defense to College World Series

Originally Published: June 9, 2008
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Miami coach Jim Morris smiled as he looked to his left and to his right at the dais for his postgame news conference Sunday night.

[+] EnlargeJim Morris
Icon SMIJim Morris is looking for his third College World Series title.

Sitting to his left was first baseman Yonder Alonso. To his right was second baseman Jemile Weeks and closer Carlos Gutierrez.

"Everybody sitting at this table is a first-rounder but me I guess, huh?" a bemused Morris asked of his recent draft picks.

Morris has surrounded himself with yet another College World Series-bound lineup -- one that could give him more wins (54) than he's ever had at Miami -- but what has separated this team from its opponents so far in the NCAA tournament has been its ability to play complete games.

Yes, the Hurricanes have hit 100 home runs, but don't pigeonhole them as sluggers. They can steal. They can pitch. They have patience at the plate. And they can play small ball if they need to. All of those factors, along with a sharp, instinctive defense in the final two innings, helped Miami overcome a pesky Arizona team 4-2 on Sunday night in the Coral Gables Super Regional.

"That's a good team," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said, "the best team we've played all year, the most balanced team I've seen in the last 10 to 12 years in terms of the pitching, offensive threats coming in through the lineup, their defensive ability. … I think Miami is a very balanced program."

Which is why the Hurricanes are in the midst of their winningest season under Morris (.852), and are headed to Omaha for the 23rd time.

With one out left in the bottom of the ninth, the fans began to chant "Oh-ma-ha!" Shortstop Ryan Jackson made a backhanded stop and a long throw to first to seal the win. That defensive play, along with Gutierrez's bases-loaded assist in the bottom of the eighth, were just as important as Alonso's two-run home run in the first for a 3-0 lead.

"This team is special because it's a team," Morris said. "It's a team effort, different people every night, one through nine. Different people on the pitching staff, it's not just one guy or one thing. It's the total team. I know that we played good, solid defense as a team."

They celebrated like one, too.

The players jumped into a pile in the infield that morphed into a pile into the outfield, and they flung their caps in the air like it was graduation. This will be the storied program's first trip to the CWS since 2006, and while Morris already has two titles to his name, the juniors on the roster have taken only a field trip to Omaha.

"Yeah, once you get there it's nice, but now you want to take care of business over there," Alonso said. "It's not just a vacation to go over there."

[+] EnlargeCarlos Gutierrez
Icon SMICloser/outfielder Carlos Gutierrez stepped up in Game 3.

This team, Weeks said, is different.

"I think we have more depth," said Weeks, whose RBI double down the left field line in the first inning put Miami ahead 1-0. "I think in the years past, I don't think we were as strong one through nine and throughout the bullpen and starting pitching. All those things, we have the talent -- just as much talent as anybody in the country. I think when we put it all together as a team, play well as a defense, pitching and offense, we can do great things with that."

So far, they have.

Miami earned the No. 1 overall seed in the nation after breezing through the ACC tournament to win the program's first ACC championship. The last and only other time the Hurricanes were the No. 1 overall seed, in 1999, they won the College World Series.

Mighty Miami has it all -- but as Arizona proved, even the Hurricanes aren't invincible.

On Friday, Miami lost a home game in a Super Regional for the first time. It left too many runners in scoring position. And Saturday, Arizona jumped out to a 4-0 lead and forced Miami to break a 7-7 tie.

In the third game, Miami got out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the eighth, when Rafael Valenzuela's hit went straight back to Gutierrez, who fired it to first to end what could have been a come-from-behind inning for the Wildcats.

"Gutz was a shortstop in high school," Morris said. "There aren't many guys who could make that play right there and pull him out, a bang-bang play at first, but he was definitely out."

[+] EnlargeYonder Alonso
Icon SMIYonder Alonso leads a Miami team hungry for an extended stay in Omaha.

Most of the attention this season, though, has been on Miami's offense -- and with good reason. The Hurricanes' bats came up big in this three-game series, and Friday's 6-3 loss showed what can happen when the ball doesn't carry. Miami hit game-changing home runs Saturday and Sunday, including a super regional school-record four home runs Saturday.

"It was huge," Alonso said. "It's been huge all week and all year. It's great to come up big, but once again we played great defense and our bullpen just closed it out."

Morris has won the College World Series twice, and has now advanced to Omaha in 11 of his 15 seasons. No other coach or program has qualified as many times as he has. Which means he knows what it takes to win it.

"I think you've got to pitch and play defense to win out there, no question about that," Morris said. "We've had some great teams that offensively went out there and we didn't win. We've had to have a combination team to be able to win it."

Don't look now, but they've got one.

Heather Dinich covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.

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