Miami Hurricanes baseball coach Jim Morris optimistic heading into ACC Tournament

It has been a trying season for Jim Morris (left) and the Hurricanes. (Miami Herald)

It has been a trying season for Jim Morris (left) and the Hurricanes. (Miami Herald)

[Related: the full ACC baseball tournament schedule]

Every time they pull on their spikes, Miami players see the word “Omaha” printed in team colors. It is a word the program has readily spoken for years, as it piled up the second-greatest number of College World Series appearances (24) of any program in the country.

It hasn’t been thrown around so breezily this year. This is a season unlike anything coach Jim Morris has experienced in 24 years in Coral Gables. His team is fighting to extend a record 44-year postseason streak.

“There’s no question it’s been on our players’ minds,” Morris said Monday. “It’s been talked about a lot, since the streak is unmatched in any sport in NCAA history. It adds a little extra pressure. Our guys are used to dealing with the pressure and people talking about it. We hear about it every day in Miami. The press is pretty tough on you in that respect.”

Usually at this time of year, the Hurricanes are making preparations to host a regional or at least wondering where they’ll go. Now, they’re assessing their resume in a different way. Miami (29-26 overall) plays in arguably the toughest conference, with six of the top 16 RPI teams. At the ACC Tournament in Louisville, UM can boost its case with games pool-play games against Wake Forest (No. 12 RPI) and Georgia Tech (No. 63). Morris would prefer to play beyond that.

“I think we need two or three wins,” he said. “If you get two wins, that puts you in the semifinals and you finish in the top four in the tournament, finishing sixth in the regular season. Last year we had 10 teams in. Our RPI is OK. We’ve had some good wins. Hopefully that will get us in. But we can’t take a chance. We’ve got to win the tournament. If we don’t win the tournament, we’ve got to finish second.

“We haven’t had that situation since I’ve been at Miami. We’ve always been worried about hosting.”

What hasn’t gone right?

“Well, what’s gone right? Next question,” Morris said.

He was kidding. He didn’t brush aside that query. His answer wasn’t brief, either.

For starters, he said, Miami “got hit hard by the draft.” A team that made back-to-back CWS appearances and was last year ranked No. 1 in the nation for a few weeks lost sluggers Zack Collins and Willie Abreu, closer Bryan Garcia, lefty starter Danny Garcia and outfielder Jacob Heyward as draft-eligible juniors. Shortstop Brandon Lopez graduated.

Morris has replaced talent before, but injuries became an unexpected issue. UM’s most reliable returning pitcher, reliever Cooper Hammond, spent most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. UM’s top returning hitter and starting shortstop, Johnny Ruiz, and first baseman Chris Barr have spent the year dealing with arm and back trouble, respectively (Barr had surgery last November). Freshman catcher Mike Amditis, expected to take over for Collins, broke his leg in March and had season-ending surgery. Speedy center fielder Carl Chester has been slowed by offseason hernia surgery.

It is a major reason Miami’s batting average (.229) is fourth-worst among Division I teams. Amditis was best on the team (.357) before his injury; Chester (.278) and sophomore Romy Gonzalez (.263, team-high 11 homers and 36 RBI) are the only players batting over .250.

“We don’t as much depth,” Morris said. “We lost a lot of players. … I feel like we’re playing better. We’ve gotten better the last 10 games, 15 games. Our guys, I can tell you, they’ve busted their butts all year.”

They begin every year with the highest of expectations. This week, it has turned into hope.

“I’ve tried not to talk to them about the 44-year streak. You let me handle that. You handle playing hard and let the chips fall where they fall.”

Noteworthy: Morris said freshman right-hander Evan McKendry (4-2, 3.24) will start against Georgia Tech (11 a.m. Tuesday, ACC regional networks/ESPN3.com). “We feel like he ought to be in our weekend rotation anyway,” Morris said. He didn’t name a starter for Thursday against Wake Forest, but all signs point to lefty Jeb Bargfeldt (7-2, 2.20), UM’s Friday starter.

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