Canes Have Chip on Their Shoulder

Canes Have Chip on Their Shoulder

2020 was supposed to be their year.

The Miami Hurricanes entered the college baseball season as a consensus top-10 team that many experts predicted would be playing in Omaha in June. And who could blame them?

The Canes were loaded.

Miami’s 2020 roster stacked up with any program in America. The Canes brought back an elite starting pitching rotation and a lineup that exploded for an ACC-leading 85 homers in 2019.

With an abundance of talent on a roster that featured 19 draft-eligible players, the 2020 Canes expected to live up to the Omaha standard that every Miami team sets.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the season was canceled after just one month of action, squashing Miami’s dreams of returning to the College World Series.

“It was a little frustrating that our season was cut short,” head coach Gino DiMare said. “We don’t want to cry the blues too much because everybody’s in the same boat. But we certainly had a team that we felt like could make a really good run at this thing.”

A few months later, Major League Baseball announced that its annual First-Year Player Draft would be shortened from 40 rounds to just five.

Because of the reduced draft, several Hurricanes that were expected to be selected in the 2020 draft suddenly were headed back to Miami and that meant the Canes would be loaded again in 2021.

“After our year got cut short and then not having the ability to go out there and play a game every day or play a few games a week for such a long period of time, I think we are all extra motivated,” first baseman Alex Toral said. “It’s like you’ve got that extra hustle in you because you’re excited to get back on the field and to get back with you know some of your teammates.”

The Hurricanes faired well in the MLB Draft, getting most of the hitters back for another year. Miami, however, did lose first-round pick Slade Cecconi and second-round picks Chris McMahon and Freddy Zamora, while pitching ace Brian Van Belle and set-up man Tyler Keysor signed free agent contracts to begin their professional careers.

Their departures have led the so-called experts to leave the Hurricanes out of their predictions for the 2021 College World Series, but that could be just the extra motivation the Canes need.

“Two years ago, no one noticed us. We went under the radar at the beginning until finally we made our name for ourselves and we got ranked and finished the year in a place where people ranked up really high before this season,” infielder Raymond Gil said. “Going into this coming season, we’re kind of in the position we want to be right now. We’re underdogs and people don’t expect much of us, which means we’re going to have to prove them wrong and we will.”

Nearly all of the Hurricanes’ potent starting lineup is back, with only Zamora moving on to professional baseball.

“We’re deep and it’s not just one through nine that’s deep,” Gil said. “We have bench players that will come through and they could start at a bunch of other places. It’s really hard facing a lineup like ours.”

“We have the same lineup and that’s probably one of the toughest lineups in college baseball because every guy is a tough out,” said infielder Anthony Vilar, who was one of three draft-eligible sophomores on Miami’s 2020 squad. “It’s just going to be about getting back into the swing of things with timing and facing live pitchers. We have an amazing lineup and we have really good recruits that are coming in. It’s going to be fun to see the competition we will have to earn positions. Hopefully we can all push each other and we can hit as well we’ve been hitting in the last two years.”

Like Vilar, Jordan Lala was a sophomore eligible to be selected in the MLB Draft. But the speedy outfielder is looking forward to another year in Miami’s orange and green.

“I know that I have a lot left to prove at Miami and I’m excited to have another shot to try and get to Omaha with all these guys that I’ve been playing with,” Lala said. “That’s our goal every year, but with our team not getting the chance to go for it this season, I know we are even hungrier to get there now.”

Fellow outfielder Tony Jenkins was having a career year in 2020, batting .300 while playing his usual stellar defense in center field. He is excited to be back at Miami for another season and is eager to see how the Canes stack up against the other top programs around the country.

“I already know a bunch of teams are going to be stacked with a lot of good guys, experienced guys who were in the lineup and guys who pitched a lot will be coming back,” Jenkins said. “College baseball is going to be really good this year with so many guys coming back on so many teams, including ours.”

The returning Canes have been hard at work preparing for their next opportunity to take the field at Alex Rodriguez Park.

“It’s just something I like to do,” Toral said. “Once you love something, it comes part of you. I love baseball and once you love it, it makes you happy to go out there and hit in a cage or it makes you happy to just go play catch in the street. It just distracts you from everything that’s going on and it just gives you the ability to enjoy yourself doing something you love. Some people may be struggling or going through some things during this time and I’m out here playing catch in the street or hitting in my friend’s cage and, to me, that’s fun. I enjoying doing it and I want to do it every day.”

While all the Hurricanes have been working hard, outfielder Gabe Rivera might be Miami’s most creative player when it comes to getting his training in. The power-hitting outfielder is one of the strongest players in the country and considers working out among his favorite hobbies, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made Rivera adjust his daily strength and conditioning regimen.

“It’s been crazy at times, but if I’m going to get better, I have to continue to put a plan in place and stick to it,” Rivera said. “I understand that there are no gyms and the only availability I have is at my house, so I have to use bodyweight workouts to the best of my ability to not only get in shape but to continue to push myself. I’ve mostly just been doing bodyweight stuff like push-ups, sit-ups and body squats, but I just keep pushing myself.

“It’s been the same thing with conditioning since we couldn’t go to a park or anything like that for a while,” Rivera continued. “I have a broken-down treadmill and it doesn’t turn on, but I really push the pedal on it. It gives me some sort of challenge to make it work. As far as strength and conditioning goes, that’s been my routine. I’m really trying to make it the best I can to keep improving physically and that will translate onto the field.”

Every single Hurricane returning to Coral Gables has the same mindset entering the 2021 season. Whether it is proving the doubters wrong or showing they are an elite player worthy of professional consideration, the Canes are coming back to campus with several big goals in mind.

“It’s great to have that chip on our shoulders that the draft didn’t work out, but we’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” Rivera said. “Yeah, it didn’t work and that’s just going to make us want to elevate our performance to be better. But, at the same time, we have a great opportunity on our hands to come back and be part of an experienced, stronger team that also has a great group of new guys. We have a great shot to still go out and win the whole thing.”

“If you didn’t get drafted last year, you’re probably a little bit upset that you didn’t get picked,” catcher Adrian Del Castillo said. “Guys like Toral, Vilar and Gil and all the other guys are definitely going to have another chip on their shoulder and they’re going to come in ready to perform at their highest levels. That’s going to be good for them as well as good for us.

“And then these new guys coming in are going to benefit from everyone coming back, too,” Del Castillo added. “Competition is what drives people to the next level. That’s what you’re going to have to face in pro ball. Once you go the minor leagues, there’s always going to be a guy behind you and a guy in front of you. You’ve got to beat out that guy in front of you and not let that guy behind you get your spot. Having all these guys back and all of these new guys coming in will make everyone better because of all the competition we will have on our team.”

The returning Canes also are making efforts to bring along their newest teammates. Miami, which boasts one of the top recruiting classes in America, has more newcomers than returners on its 2021 roster, but the veterans are ready to show the rookies how to be Hurricanes.

“It definitely is exciting to get another year with my guys,” Jenkins said. “I know all the guys have been working hard and they know what it takes to be a Cane, so I’m excited to get back with all of them. And we have a big recruiting class and we can help those guys because we’ve been here for four years and we can set that foundation with those younger guys. That way when we leave, they know the steps and they’ll know what it takes to be a Cane, too.”

While the Hurricanes have been left off of every way-too-early prediction for the 2021 College World Series field, DiMare is making sure every player understands the expectations of being a Cane.

“I don’t know if any of the preseason rankings think that we’re going to have a chance to do that this year, but I fully expect our team to be right back at it,” DiMare said. “This is not a rebuild. This is a reload and that’s what we need it to be. We need to put ourselves right back in position and I’m very, very excited. Our guys should be extremely hungry to get back at this thing.”

While their 2020 goal of going to Omaha was erased by the pandemic, Miami’s veterans are committed to reaching that goal in 2021.

“I think it all worked itself out the way it was supposed to and everything happens for a reason,” right-handed pitcher Daniel Federman said. “I think I was meant to go back to Miami and I still have unfinished business. I really want to be able to help lead this team this year and get us back to Omaha.”

“All of us draft-eligible guys left this last season with a bitter taste in our mouth, knowing that we had a really good team and our season got shortened,” Rivera said. “We had great things ahead of us and it was unfortunate that we couldn’t finish our goals. But we’re back and it’s time to do it again.”