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Learning Curve

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Every year, a new crop of freshmen arrive on college campuses across the country eager to learn and grow to prepare themselves for life.

Class was in session again at Mark Light Field this past season, as the Hurricanes welcomed five true freshmen pitchers to the baseball program. The quintet of talented young arms had the pleasure of learning from one of the best pitching coaches in the country, former Miami star J.D. Arteaga, as they prepared for their first taste of college baseball.

“J.D. is a wizard with pitching,” right-hander Alex McFarlane said. “He pushes the importance of the mental aspect so hard on you and that can only benefit you. Although his work is tough, it all works out in the end. He breaks down your pitches and he knows your arsenal. He knows how to work you individually and he does that with all the other freshmen pitchers. He pushes that mental side of pitching to the max, which will help you so much moving forward.”

Arteaga, who has been Miami’s pitching coach for 18 years after an illustrious career for the Hurricanes, has developed stars on the mound for nearly two decades. From the minute they arrive on campus, he imparts his wisdom and knowledge on the latest crop of talented arms to don the orange and green.

Every bullpen and every time throwing, he is so smart and I learned so much,” left-handed pitcher Carson Palmquist added. “He knows an unbelievable amount of things about your arm and the best ways for your arm to move and how to keep it healthy. It’s crazy how much he knows about pitching and, really, the game of baseball. He coaches so much more than just pitching.

For the newest Canes, which also included right-hander Jake Garland and lefties Alex Munroe and Yordani Carmona, adjusting to college baseball was a new and different experience. Fortunately, for the young pitchers, veterans like team captain Brian Van Belle made sure to show them how to be a Miami pitcher.

“Van Belle really showed me how to work,” Garland said. “He was there late summer and I’d been there for a couple of weeks. He kind of showed me the way and what to do and what not to do and how to do it. He showed me how hard his work ethic was. He was one of the ones that helped me out the most.”

For Garland, coming to Miami meant more than just a new school and new baseball team.

“It was a very unique experience,” Garland said of his first year at UM. “Something I never got to experience in high school was a locker room. I never had one, so I was never able to sit and hang with the guys on the team like that. It’s a different way of bonding with them. I liked getting to know the guys on the team a lot better and part of that happened when we were in the locker room.

“I really went in hoping to meet everyone and get to know the guys and I ended up becoming close with a lot of the older guys,” Garland continued. “I feel like we just bonded right away. Everyone on the team knows freshmen aren’t like upperclassmen and we need to learn stuff, especially at the beginning. The guys are great and everyone really likes each other and gets along really well.”

In addition to learning a new set of teammates, Miami’s incoming hurlers had to learn how to be successful pitching in college and each one learned different lessons throughout their first season with the Canes.

“The biggest thing I learned is the difference between high school and college baseball,” Palmquist said. “Coming from high school, you are used to being the No. 1 and everyone is usually the best guy and you are almost always successful. The thing I learned is that you’re going to give up hits and runs because everyone is good here. Everyone was the best guy at their high school and you aren’t going to be the good kid on day one in college. The talent level and quality of player is much higher here and you need to do so much more to try and reach the top of that group.”

Palmquist impressed in his first year with the Canes, going 1-0 with a 2.31 ERA and striking out 15 batters of 11.2 innings. Despite having success in his Miami debut, the Fort Myers, Fla., native is eager to do more the next time he steps on the field for the Canes.

“It definitely motivates me to work harder every day because what separates everyone is how hard they work,” Palmquist said. “Whoever works the hardest is going to have the best chance to get better and succeed.”

“There was a lot of learning,” McFarlane added. “I learned a lot more about pitching and the mental aspects of pitching at the next level. There’s a lot of new things I learned that helped me and will continue to help me in my sophomore year.”

McFarlane came to Miami as a ballyhooed prospect who was drafted in the 25th round by the St. Louis Cardinals after his senior year of high school. However the 6-foot-4 right-hander with the powerful arm discovered there was a lot more to pitching in college than explosive stuff.

The moment I knew I was at a different level was when I realized velocity does not matter,” McFarlane said. “It's all about location or the pitches. It doesn't matter how hard you throw; like Van Belle doesn't throw hard, but he locates pitches and look at him right now. He's so successful in college baseball. I throw hard, but my wake-up call was getting knocked around a little and just learning how to locate pitches. I'd say how well they hit velocity would be my wake-up call to college. They didn’t used to do that in high school.

Garland, who hails from Jupiter, Fla., was a two-time FHSAA all-state selection and two-time 9A player of the year in high school. The right-hander racked up a school-record 222 career strikeouts in his four varsity seasons at Jupiter High School, but he quickly found out that pitching at Miami was going to be a new challenge.

“My ‘welcome to college baseball’ moment was in the very first scrimmage that I pitched,” Garland said. “What worked for me in high school was my curveball. It needed some improvement, but at the time I thought it was my best pitch. I threw a curveball and it was kind of loopy to Isaac Quiñones and he just sat back and hit it out of the ballpark. He took me pretty deep.”

The 6-foot-4 pitcher learned a lot since that first time taking the mound during fall ball and he turned in an impressive performance in his collegiate debut.

“My favorite moment was my very first outing against Rutgers: one inning, 1-2-3 with three strikeouts,” Garland said. “I’ll never forget it. My very first collegiate outing, even though it wasn’t a start, it was an impressive start to my career as a Cane.”

The success on the mound continued for Garland, who went 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA and 12 strikeouts over 9.1 innings pitched out of Miami’s bullpen. While Garland enjoyed contributing as a reliever in 2020, he set a goal of starting games like he did in high school.

“I don’t mind being a reliever. I think it’s awesome,” Garland said. “I did close out a couple games in my high school career and it does bring a different sense of joy coming out of the bullpen in a tight game. You get those get those energetic nerves and it pumps you up right away. You’re on the bench always looking to see if you’re going to go in and as the game gets further and further along, those nerves keep on building up and building up until they eventually call your name. When they call your name, that’s when you’ve ready, you’ve got to get hot and you’ve got to go.”

Since his freshman season was cut short, that goal has rolled over to 2021 and Garland has already begun working to achieve it.

“My goal this year was to get a start and get back to that routine,” Garland said. “I like having a routine for when I start because I know when I’m pitching and having a routine would be kind of cool. I set the goal to be a weekend starter. I think if I show to the coaches that I can do it and I can prove it to them and back myself up, then I think that a very good shot of being a weekend starter.”

Much like Garland, Palmquist’s favorite memory from his debut season also came in his first appearance as a Hurricane. The lefty with a funky delivery blanked the rival Gators for three innings, striking out a career-high five batters over three hitless frames.

“It was one of the most surreal moments of my life so far,” Palmquist said. “Being able to play for the first time was amazing. I’ll never forget my first college game pitching against Florida. It was a great experience and something I’ll never forget.

“It was a dream come true,” Palmquist continued. “To play for one of the best teams in the country and then for my first college game to come against one of the best teams in the country, it was perfect and everything went perfectly [on the mound]. It was better than I ever could have imagined.”

Their freshman year is nearing a close, as Miami’s students will finish their final exams this week. McFarlane, Garland and Palmquist all were excited about the prospects of playing summer ball, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancelation of their leagues. Despite the lack of leagues to play in, the trio is motivated to improve over the break.

“As soon as they let us back in the facilities at Miami, I’ll be there,” Palmquist said. “I’m going to be getting my apartment and I’ll be working with our strength coach, H.R. [Powell]. We’ve been on a throwing program, but we’ll see what J.D. comes up with since summer ball was canceled. I’m just excited to get to work and keep getting better for next season.”

“The grind doesn’t stop,” Garland said. “Right now, it’s tougher with gyms being closed, but you still have to get out and work and I’m still working out on my own with workouts we got from our strength coach, H.R. I’m trying the best I can to stay in shape. I thought I was in really good shape for the season, but I feel like if I can get in better shape and get stronger and better that’s just going to help improve my pitching.”

McFarlane, who made four starts as a true freshman in 2020, is excited to build off his experience and be even better in year two with the Canes.

“I have some experience now starting. I can take that experience, because I got a taste of how it feels to be a starter for college baseball, and I could use that to my advantage by just sitting down and watching film and working on more mental aspects of my game,” McFarlane said.

“With the physical aspects of my game, I still have a lot of room to grow and finding the best ways to use my body,” McFarlane added. “I want to get stronger and have more command so I can locate pitches well. I also want to really focus on the mental aspect of the game this summer, along with the physical projection of me.”

A native of St. Thomas, USVI, McFarlane feels he improved a lot as a pitcher in his first year working under Arteaga’s tutelage. His growth as a pitcher has made him even hungrier for success and that fuels him as he heads into the summer months.

“It can all work out the best for you if you put in the time and work for it to be like that,” McFarlane said. “You have so many good pitchers on the team that your role could change in a snap. You’ve just got to keep up the work, keep working hard, never relax. You can’t think you’re on the spot when you’re really not. If you have some success, you’re going to have to build on that success. You can’t be complacent with one spot.”

All three gifted young pitchers are eager to lead their class of pitchers with the hopes of joining the list of Miami greats that includes their pitching coach and mentor, Arteaga.

“I think we’re all super ready to become the next great pitchers at Miami,” Palmquist said. “We’re all hungry for it, we’re all on the same mission and we talk about it all the time. We’re going to be around for a while and it’s good to have a solid group of guys to keep on coming in after us.”

“I’m a strong believer in everything happens for a reason,” Garland said. “You just never know what God has planned for us. I think that we can use the summer as a time to really buckle down and work harder towards our end goal, which is getting to Omaha. Everything we do is to get back to Omaha.”

The freshmen Canes got a taste of what they could accomplish in 2020, helping Miami rank among the best teams in the country. Now they are focused on taking the next step individually to help their team take a step forward collectively toward their ultimate goal.

“We’ve got so much young talent with this team,” McFarlane said. “The pitching staff this year was really special and I feel like we had a great impact with that. Moving forward, there’s a lot of things to be excited about with this young pitching staff and I feel like we could really make an impact on winning a national championship in the future.”