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College : : Story
One fitting return
Kendall Rogers        
Published: Thursday, March 01, 2012

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It’s hard not to openly root for Miami left-handed pitcher Eric Erickson.

Baseball players tend to deal with adversity in different ways throughout their careers, but dealing with multiple injuries can test your will like no other. Erickson knows exactly how that feels.

Some pitchers have major issues returning after having just one arm injury that results in Tommy John surgery. But Erickson, he didn’t have a problem returning from Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the 2009 campaign. In fact, he approached his second Tommy John surgery last season with a positive attitude, and now he’s back on the mound for the Hurricanes.

Oh yeah, fresh off two arm surgeries, Erickson has been absolutely fantastic as a sixth-year senior for the Hurricanes so far this season.

Call it will, toughness and talent all wrapped into one.

“It feels great to be back. It has been a long road back, that’s for sure,” Erickson said. “The team is playing well and I’m just glad I can contribute. It was a huge relief getting a waiver to come back. I had some options, but I wanted to be out here playing for the Hurricanes. I wanted to do whatever it took to stay committed to the game and program.”

What a roller coaster ride the past few seasons have been for Erickson.

The talented left-hander was one of the nation’s elite freshmen in 2007, tallying a 10-4 record and compiling an impressive 2.50 earned-run average. But in 2008, Erickson put together another solid season as a sophomore, helping guide the Hurricanes to the College World Series as a starting pitcher.

After two productive years, Erickson expected to enter his junior season as a heralded prospect and a likely All-American hurler. Instead, he missed the everything because of his first arm injury.

Erickson returned to the mound as a redshirt junior in 2010, and again was fabulous. He had a 2.52 ERA in 11 appearances for the Hurricanes.

Then came arm injury No. 2. Just as he was preparing for his senior campaign for the Hurricanes, Erickson found out he’d miss the year because of yet another arm injury. And yep, the injury would require -- you guessed it -- Tommy John surgery.

At this point, it’s safe to say most pitchers at this level would’ve seen the writing on the wall and given up their baseball dream. Not Erickson. Not even close.

“There’s never been any question what I wanted to do. Baseball is what I always want to be involved with for as long as I’m on this Earth,” he said. “Everyone has to jump through hoops at some point in their career, some more so than others.”

During his last rehabilitation stint, Erickson spent plenty of time in what Hurricanes fans would call enemy territory, or what the lefty would call a second home -- Tallahassee, Fla. There, Erickson worked hard on tweaking his mechanics and motion, hoping to make sure another injury doesn’t resurface in the future.

It has been so far so good for the veteran.

“While I was in Tallahassee, we made some important mechanical adjustments. They put me in a better throwing position, where I’m using my legs a lot more now,” he said. “That gets me on top of the ball more and helps me stay behind the ball a little bit more. Once I made those changes, everything seemed to really fall into place. Now I don’t have to think about the changes. It feels like a regular delivery.”

Even with a new delivery, Erickson wasn’t 100 percent sure what to expect entering fall workouts after receiving a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA. He figured he’d have some success, as most competitors would tend to believe.

We’re not sure anyone outside of Coral Gables, Fla., expected Erickson to start 2012 on such a high note. Texts from Miami pitching coach J.D. Arteaga during fall workouts insinuated that Erickson was pitching at a high level. But this high of a level? An amazing story, indeed.

Erickson has reestablished himself as one of the nation’s premier pitchers. He has yet to allow a run in two starts for the ‘Canes and in 13 innings of work. He also has struck out 16, walked none and teams are hitting just .170 against him.

“I feel strong, my velocity is right around where it should be, 88-89, touching some 90s,” he said. “My changeup and curveball probably are a little better than they’ve ever been in my career.”

Beyond his arm being one of Miami’s elite weapons, Erickson brings so much more to the table. He was a key cog on the Hurricanes’ 2008 College World Series team, and he continues to provide the necessary leadership. The younger Hurricanes players look up to him for guidance.

“I’ve been trying to do the best I can from a leadership standpoint. I’m taking it as my responsibility to push this team as hard as I can,” he said. “I know what it takes to get to Omaha, and I know there are a lot of elements to it. People said our 2008 team was the best ever, but I don’t see a lot of differences between that team and this one. As a matter fact, the pitching staff on this team might be better.”

Erickson hopes to help keep the Hurricanes rolling throughout the season. The ‘Canes are off to a fabulous 8-0 start, fresh off series wins over Rutgers and Albany, and a solid midweek win over Florida Atlantic.

But now comes a series against the Florida Gators, a team that ended Miami’s season the last three seasons. The Gators eliminated the Hurricanes in NCAA Regional play in 2011 and ’09, and in NCAA Super Regional action in ’10.

Erickson, back in his best form, would love nothing more than to reestablish Miami as the premier program in Florida.

“I’m excited, but I’ve been in a series like this before,” he said. “I like the hype and excitement that surrounds it. I love the atmosphere and things like that. It has been a couple of years since I’ve been in this situation.”

“I’m ready. I’m pumped.”



WHO’S HOT

South Carolina: The Gamecocks are riding a 17-game winning streak dating back to last season. They put that streak on the line this weekend against heated rival Clemson. Will that streak finally come to a screeching halt?

Rice: The Owls have collected a pair of really nice series sweeps over Florida International and Dallas Baptist to begin the season. Most surprising is the resurgence of right-handed starting pitcher Matthew Reckling. He has been dominant so far this season.

Oregon: What an impressive brand of baseball the Ducks have played the first two weeks, earning road series wins over Hawaii and Vanderbilt. The pitching staff is having expected success, but the offense hitting around .300 is a pleasant surprise.

Miami (Fla.): The Hurricanes are off to a fantastic start with an excellent pitching staff and so far productive lineup leading the way. Transfer catcher Peter O’Brien has been a monster at the plate, while veteran left-handed pitcher Eric Erickson has been very impressive.

Gonzaga: Give the Bulldogs credit for clicking on all cylinders this season after losing several key cogs last summer. The weekend rotation of Andy Hunter, Marcos Gonzalez and Tyler Olson has been fantastic thus far.



WHO’S NOT


Vanderbilt: The Commodores can’t seem to establish any sort of consistency. After dropping tough series to Stanford and Oregon, Louisiana Tech recently roughed them up in midweek action, in Nashville no less. It’s time for the Commodores to turn things around.

Jacksonville: The Dolphins are off to an incredibly slow start this season, and it has a great deal to do with the struggles of big-time hitters Adam Brett Walker and Dan Gulbransen, both hitting well below .200 so far this spring.

Winthrop: The Eagles certainly started the 2012 campaign with a tough schedule, but we certainly didn’t see an 0-8 start coming. Already behind the curve, it’s all about SoCon play for Winthrop.

Loyola Marymount: There’s still time for the Lions to form into West Coast Conference contenders, but it seems like others such as San Francisco, San Diego and Gonzaga have left them behind a little bit. LMU is off to a dismal 2-6 start this season.

TCU: All-American catcher Josh Elander and the Horned Frogs are off to a very slow start, having lost three of their last four games, and sitting at 2-5 after dropping their last two midweek games and last series at Cal State Fullerton. TCU has a big series against Oklahoma State coming up this weekend.



FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH


Miami hopes to turn the tide
It’s safe to say the Hurricanes have had all sorts of issues with Florida the past few seasons, so it’s only natural they can’t wait to play the Gators at home this weekend, hoping for a little revenge of some sorts. While the Gators certainly are the favorite to win the series, things change a little if sophomore right-hander Karsten Whitson is unable to pitch this weekend. The Hurricanes are playing an excellent brand of baseball with veteran hurler Eric Erickson (0.00) leading the charge. The pitching staff as a whole has done a nice job with a 2.43 ERA so far this season. The ‘Canes also have done some nice things offensively with hard-hitting catcher Peter O’Brien (.500) leading the way. Miami has a chance to make a huge statement this weekend. We’ll see if it happens. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise.

The nation’s best rivalry continues this weekend
Speaking of not being able to master an opponent, Clemson hopes to turn the tide against heated rival South Carolina this weekend. The Tigers haven’t had much luck against the Gamecocks the past two seasons. Two years ago, they dropped a pair of games to South Carolina in Omaha, before losing two of three in the only series last season. Now, the Tigers are aiming for a series win over Ray Tanner’s squad, which is pitching at an ultra high level with starting pitchers Michael Roth, Matt Price and Colby Holmes leading the charge. Meanwhile, the Tigers could be in a little bind if stud third baseman Richie Shaffer is unable to go this weekend. Meanwhile, a lot rest on the shoulders of Clemson ace Kevin Brady, who has a 0.90 ERA in 10 innings of work.

It’s audition time for the USC Trojans
It’s simply unbelievable to think the Trojans haven’t reached the NCAA postseason, much less a College World Series, since 2005, but coach Frank Cruz finally hopes to buck that trend this spring. He has a chance to do just that. The Trojans are off to a hot start following dominant series wins over Jacksonville and Akron, but certainly face their stiffest test thus far in a road bout against the red-hot Tar Heels. USC’s starting rotation, consisting of Stephen Tarpley, Andrew Triggs and Ben Mount has really done a nice job this season, while the offense also has been productive. It’ll be interesting to see if the Trojans can make a huge statement this weekend.

Statement potential for the Big Ten
Several Big Ten teams have taken the initiative to put together tough non-conference schedules this spring, Michigan State being one of those clubs. The Spartans are off to a 4-3 start, but have a chance to really make a big statement this weekend with a road series against No. 5 Texas A&M. Don’t be too surprised if this is a highly competitive series. The Aggies struggled with Holy Cross last weekend, and the Spartans certainly are significantly more talented than the Crusaders. The Spartans have a solid one-two punch on the weekend with Tony Bucciferro (2.25) and Andrew Waszak (1.38) leading the way, while the offense is loaded with talent, including outfielders Jordan Keur (.458) and Torsten Boss (.286) in addition to second baseman Ryan Jones (.323) … The Spartans aren’t the only Big Ten team with a chance to make some big-time noise this weekend. Purdue heads south to face Auburn and Southern Mississippi in a tournament. It could be a big weekend for the Big Ten.

Florida International needs big weekend
As usual, the Houston College Classic includes several teams with intriguing storylines entering the weekend. Tennessee has been one of the nation’s pleasant surprises thus far, and coach Dave Serrano’s club gets their stiffest test to date against a crop of opponents that includes Houston, Texas and Rice. We’ll know more about the Vols by the end of the weekend, but keep an eye on two-way stud Drew Steckenrider, among others. Meanwhile, Rice and Texas Tech are playing outstanding brands of baseball with both teams pitching at a very high level the first two weeks of the season, while Texas and Houston need something positive to occur this weekend. The ‘Horns are coming of a disappointing showing against Stanford, while the Cougars have lost three games, including a home series loss to Texas State. There’s also Arkansas, which is off to another hot start with starting pitchers DJ Baxendale and Ryne Stanek, along with third baseman Matt Reynolds, shortstop Tim Carver and first baseman Dominic Ficociello leading the way. This tournament is always a great measuring stick for teams.




TEN SERIES TO WATCH


#1 Florida at #12 Miami (Fla.): The Hurricanes have struggled immensely against the Gators the past couple of seasons, but finally hope to turn the tide once and for all. Ace pitcher Eric Erickson gives the ‘Canes a chance in the series opener, while the bullpen has been stout so far this season. This series boils down to Florida having/not having the ability to throw sophomore starting pitcher Karsten Whitson. Since it looks like Whitson could miss the weekend, we’re thinking an upset just might be in store.
PG Pick:
Miami

#3 South Carolina vs. #17 Clemson: One of the best aspects of this series is that one game is played at Clemson, one at South Carolina, and another at a neutral site. That makes the three-game set so special. With that said, Clemson starting pitcher Kevin Brady has made a strong return to the mound this season, but there’s some uncertainty on stud third baseman Richie Shaffer and his availability this weekend. That’s not good news for the Tigers, who are going up against an excellent weekend rotation in Michael Roth, Matt Price and Colby Holmes.
PG Pick: South Carolina

#38 USC at #6 North Carolina: There’s not a better measuring stick for the Trojans than this weekend’s series against the Tar Heels. Winning series against Jacksonville and Akron was good and all, but the level of competition this weekend will be off the charts compared to those series. The Trojans pitched very well the first two weekends, particularly the starting rotation, and that must continue to have a chance this weekend. Meanwhile, UNC is playing an excellent brand of baseball thus far with third baseman Colin Moran and ace pitcher Kent Emanuel leading the way.
PG Pick:
North Carolina

#39 Pepperdine at #16 Louisville: Few college baseball teams have been more surprising this season than the Waves. The Waves have gotten solid and consistent starts from Jon Moscot and Scott Frazier, while the offense is doing a solid job with Zach Vincej and freshman stud Aaron Brown leading the charge. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are coming off a tough midweek loss to Eastern Illinois and would love to capture a marquee home series win this weekend. Both teams are pitching well, so it boils down to which team’s offense rises to the occasion. Percentages are in UL’s favor at home.
PG Pick:
Louisville

Long Beach State at #21 Oregon: The Dirtbags are playing better this season and are pitching well with starting pitchers Matt Anderson (1.59) and Ryan Strufing (1.84) leading the charge. However, the offense must be much better this weekend against the Ducks to have a chance to win the series. The Dirtbags are hitting just .200 as a team with two hitters (Juan Avila and Brennan Metzger) batting over .300. Meanwhile, what a start George Horton’s Ducks are off to, taking care of business both at the plate and on the mound.
PG Pick:
Oregon

Oklahoma State at #29 TCU: Fans in Fort Worth ought to be treated to an absolute dandy in the series opener with Andrew Mitchell on the mound for the Frogs and Andrew Heaney for the Cowboys. But overall, this series is expected to a good one, also important for both clubs. The Cowboys are just 5-4 this season after getting swept by Cal Poly to begin the year, while the Frogs are 2-5, partly because of iffy play and also because of a strong schedule to start the season. Something has to give with two potential NCAA postseason teams going at it.
PG Pick: TCU

Michigan State at #5 Texas A&M: Don’t be too surprised this is on our upset watch this weekend. The Spartans are a very solid club, while the Aggies haven’t played their best brand of baseball so far this season, almost losing a pair of games to Holy Cross last weekend. Torsten Boss and others must rise to the occasion at the plate, while ace Tony Bucciferro needs to start the weekend on the right foot with All-American Michael Wacha toeing the rubber for the Aggies. A&M should win this series, but the Spartans are a solid club.
PG Pick:
Texas A&M

Notre Dame at Texas State: What a great series this will be if you’re a fan of offensive production. The Fighting Irish are off to a solid 5-1 start, and are doing a tremendous job at the plate with Joe Hudson (.591) and Trey Mancini (.565) leading the way. Meanwhile, the Bobcats have a couple of big boppers of their own in Casey Kalenkosky and Jeff McVaney. This series boils down to which team can catch a few breaks on the mound, an area where Texas State has the edge.
PG Pick: Texas State

Alabama at Tulane: What an important series for both teams moving forward. The Crimson Tide lost a lot of luster opening weekend when Florida Atlantic swept them at home. They also played bad earlier this week in a midweek bout against Southern Mississippi, with the pitching staff being a huge disappointment. Meanwhile, the Green Wave has played an impressive brand of baseball so far this season, with Brennan Middleton (.517) being a big surprise in the early going. Tulane knows how important of a series this could be by season’s end.  
PG Pick:
Tulane

Elon at #40 College of Charleston: At least for the Southern Conference, league play begins this weekend with an excellent series between the Phoenix and Cougars. Elon is off to a 5-3 start, playing South Carolina in a hard-fought series last weekend, while the Cougars are 6-1, though, lacking a marquee victory so far this season. Charleston is the more balanced team, and it’s at home this weekend. Chances are great it takes care of business.
PG Pick: College of Charleston


Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at kendall@perfectgame.org

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