Best of Both Worlds

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Finding a big bat is challenging; so is getting a shutdown pitcher. But getting a player who can drop bombs at the plate and dominate on the mound seems especially difficult.

The Miami Hurricanes believe they have three two-way players that can deliver a big hit or prevent one from happening and that gives head coach Gino DiMare a lot of intriguing options heading into the 2021 season.

“We’ve never had three guys that are possible two-way guys,” DiMare said. “It’s a huge bonus to have three guys with that kind of flexibility. Now, having said that, you’ve got to figure out their roles, too.”

DiMare has familiarity with two-way players, as JP Gates has played a key role in each of the previous two seasons. But Miami added a pair of newcomers in graduate transfer Ben Wanger and JUCO transfer Michael Rosario that will join Gates as two-way options for the Canes.

“It makes it a little harder how this is going to work if you’re going to hit them and when they pitch. We’ve learned that with JP,” DiMare said. “You’ve got to figure out how to use them because if you bring him in as a hitter and then you want to pinch-hit, you can’t pinch-hit for them if you haven’t brought him in the game to pitch late in the game. All these guys are probably later in the game pitchers, especially Gates and Ben Wanger, but it makes it very hard. If they’re not swinging the bat well, do I pull them out? Well, I may want them late in the game pitching. It’s a good thing to have, there’s no doubt, but you better learn how to utilize it and utilize it the right way for the team.”

Gates, who was an outstanding hitter as a freshman in 2019 before turning in elite performances on the mound in 2020, believes the two newest two-ways in orange and green can make a big impact for the Hurricanes in 2021.

“I think they’re both great additions to the team and they will help us win a lot of games,” Gates said. “You’ve got Ben, who is a closer and gives us a guy to lock down the end of games. To have a veteran like Wanger is a huge bonus. He’s going to bring that veteran mentality along with what he can do on the mound and at the plate.

“With Mike, he’s a dog, he’s going to compete and he’s a great athlete,” Gates continued. “Adding another lefty helps a lot. We have five lefties now and that gives Gino and [pitching coach] J.D. [Arteaga] a lot of good options to choose from on the mound.”

As challenging as it may be for a head coach and his staff to figure out how to best use their two-way talents, it is even more difficult to excel at both pitching and hitting to a level where teams will allow a player to do both in the midst of an era that so heavily focuses on specialization.

“I’ve always said, ‘I just like being on the field and doing whatever it takes to help the team win.’ Now that may be hitting or pitching, wherever the coaching staff sees fit,” Wanger said. “I’ve always had success at both positions, so nobody’s told me to hang one or the other up, so I’ve just kept on going and seeing success.”

Wanger has excelled both as a pitcher and a hitter, most recently earning second-team All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball after an outstanding showing in the shortened 2020 season while at USC. The 6-foot-3 right-hander served as the Trojans’ closer, recording three saves, good for second-most in the Pac-12, and a 0.00 ERA. He did not allow an earned run in his six relief appearances, striking out eight batters and walking one in 6.1 innings pitched.

“He can really pitch. He’s got an unbelievable breaking ball, it’s a swing and miss breaking ball,” DiMare said of Wanger. “He’s extremely competitive and, a bonus, he swings the bat from the left side, so I’m excited.”

As a hitter, Wanger slashed .410/.500/.564, leading the Trojans in hitting while finishing fifth in the Pac-12 in batting average. He also drove in eight runs and scored five, hitting four doubles and one triple. Heading into his sixth collegiate season, Wanger attributes his success in both roles to having the right mentality.

“At SC I was a DH and then I’d come on to the mound as the closer for close games,” Wanger said. “It just takes a lot of focus and being able to take emotions out of the game because there are times when I was at SC, and this happened a lot at Yale actually, that I would be struggling at the plate for a day and then it would be a one-run game and you have to put all that behind you and come on to the mound and be able to reset and focus and give a good outing on the mound. So that takes a lot of mental toughness being able to put those emotions behind you and kind of move on in a split second. I always focus completely on hitting for at least the first six or so innings and then once I get on the mound it’s all pitching and I’m just completely locked in on that.”

Having the physical ability to both pitch and hit is a blessing that few players possess, but all two-way players agree that being mentally strong is one of the most important keys to success in their unique role.

“Bouncing around is kind of hard. You go in different mental states and you’re trying to fix this adjustment pitching and make that adjustment hitting and I also take some ground balls at first base. Obviously, we have [Alex] Toral, but I’ve been that next guy behind them the last two years, so I’ve had to keep my mental state ready in case anything happened and I have to go in and play first base, too.

“It’s been challenging to do both and you can see it in my stat line,” Gates continued. “Obviously, hitting was more my thing my freshman year and pitching was better my sophomore year. It’s just about trying to figure out what you need to do at that time and trying to contribute any way possible. It’s really hard doing both and implementing both, but it’s basically just a mind game within two-way where you have to learn what to focus on and when to focus on it.”

While Gates and Wanger have been two-way players for as long as they can remember, Rosario was an outfielder for most of his baseball career. But he pitched some as a senior in high school and got more opportunities on the mound at St. Johns River College.

“I’m definitely more comfortable as position player, because I’ve pretty much done that all of my life,” Rosario said. “I’m kind of new to pitching, but I’m looking forward to learning and developing more as a pitcher.

“I threw a little bit my senior year of high school. Being a lefty, that kind of helped me out a little bit,’ Rosario added. “So my senior year I started pitching and then my freshman year at St Johns, Ross Jones really helped me out a lot just developing and helping me trust my stuff and understanding how to pitch and what goes into it. It’s more than just throwing hard and hitting your spots.”

While Gates and Wanger have proven to be successful late-inning relievers at the Power 5 level, Rosario is looking to earn a role in Miami’s bullpen, as well as in its outfield.

“From a pitching standpoint, left-handed pitching is a position that we need some depth and we need guys to produce. We need our left-handed pitchers to produce and he’s got a great opportunity to get a chance to do that,” DiMare said. “We’ve just got to see what his role will play and, obviously, when we start scrimmaging, we’ll get a better idea. He’s got a lot of athletic ability, he’s got a great arm, clean arm. I want to see how he pitches in games against our guys. That should be very telling about where he’s at.

“In terms of hitting, Mike can play in the outfield and he has played outfield, so he adds that dimension to it,” DiMare continued. “Offensively, he’s a left-handed bat and he’s got a really nice swing. He’s a guy that, hopefully, he can do the things he did this summer. He’s got some power in his bat and he’s a good athlete. For me, it’s just a matter of where he fits in the team and in the roles that he could play for us. Obviously, the competition is going to be very good this year.”

With several months of fall practice ahead of them, Gates, Rosario and Wanger have built a bond as a trio of two-way players at The U.

“It’s been really good to have some other two-way guys on the team this year. It’s nice to have two other guys that are doing the same thing I am and I’m not alone anymore in that,” Gates said. “We collaborate and talk about how to do stuff. Ben’s been doing this for five years, so it’s great talking to somebody who has had experience with it. I can pick his brain on different stuff. It’s the same thing with Mike where me and Mike are the same age and we are both left/left guys, so we can kind of pick each other’s brains. Mike is new to the two-way thing, so he’s asked me for advice and it’s been good to help him. We pick each other up a lot and are always helping each other whenever we can.”

Anything I can do to help us get to Omaha is what I try to do, whether that is getting a hit when my team needs it or coming in to pitch and getting us out of a jam.

LHP/UT JP Gates

Rosario appreciates the support his fellow two-way teammates have shown him early in his Hurricanes career. The Gainesville, Fla., native has learned a lot from Gates and Wanger and is eager to continue progressing ahead of his first season with the Canes.

“It’s definitely a huge having other two-way guys on the team,” Rosario said. “With JP being here for couple years, he knows how things work and he’s definitely taken me under his wing a little bit and showed me around. He keeps me in check and lets me know what I need to do. It’s been a big help having him and Ben here with me.”

All three players seemingly always have things going on at the field. Whether they are working with the pitchers and doing some hitting work on their own or taking instruction with the position players and handling their pitching responsibilities independently, there is plenty of work to be done. Having other players in the same situation has helped the group connect simply because they all understand what they others are going through.

“It makes for some busy practices. You’re always running around trying to make the most out of all of the practice times because you’re kind of jumping around and switching hats all the time, switching gloves all the time,” Wanger said. “It’d be good to have some other guys. When I was at Yale we had two other two ways also, but not at USC, so I’m excited to be able to have some friends in that regard, who are as busy as me.”

While practices may be busy, Gates, Rosario and Wanger all know their extra effort is worth it when the season starts. Expectations are high in Coral Gables, with the Hurricanes bringing back one of the most talented rosters in college baseball and adding the top recruiting class in America, but that is exactly what motivates the two-way standouts to thrive in both roles.

“From top to bottom, I think we are going to be stacked hitting-wise and pitching-wise,” Gates said. “I think we’re going to be just as good as last year, maybe even better. From what I’ve seen and what I’ve witnessed so far, we’re a really good group of guys and we get along really well together. We just added the No. 1-ranked recruiting class, but that means nothing until you show it on the field, and as veterans, we are going to do everything we can to help lead these new guys and get this team to Omaha.”