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Miami sluggers setting torrid pace a week ahead of MAC season

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The RedHawks' game-changing power just might be the most intriguing storyline as the conference season nears.

Senior OF Gary Russo already has 8 HR this season
Senior OF Gary Russo already has 8 HR this season
Miami Athletics

Let's name a few random facts about Miami RedHawks baseball.

It's 7-9 this season, which isn't much to brag about, but it is an improvement over last year's 2-14 start. Eight of the 17 pitchers on the roster are freshmen, including each of the three pitchers with the highest innings totals on the team this season. It is home to Mizuki Shumsky, the only Japanese-born player in the Mid-American Conference, and boasts two players on its roster that are returning from All-MAC seasons in 2015.

Oh, and the team sends more junk into orbit than a manic Soviet overlord in the heat of the Cold War.

Miami heads into this weekend fourth in all of Division I baseball with 27 home runs hit this season. Their slugging percentage (.514) and runs scored (113) both lead the MAC and the next best home run hitting team in the conference entering the weekend is Ohio, who has only 10.

"I think a lot of it is personnel," third-year head coach Danny Hayden said. "We’ve got a lot of older guys who are power hitters, and that’s a big part of it. I don’t think it’s anything special we’re doing. Other teams out there may be a little more athletic than us, and we can hit for a little bit more power than them."

Nobody has injected himself into the equation more than senior outfielder Gary Russo. Russo exploded with five homers in the first eight games of the season, and has run that total to eight in the games since. His 20 RBI are second on the team, and his slugging percentage of .788 places him firmly in the top 30 players in the country.

The numbers Russo has posted have returned him to the level of success he enjoyed when he totaled 28 extra base hits, including 10 homers, in his sophomore year. He fell into a slump last season, finishing with a .211/.306/.303 line and playing in only 35 games.

""I think I just put too much pressure on myself last season," Russo said. "I was too hard on myself if I didn’t produce in every at bat. I was just more focused on the result than the process. But now if I have a good at bat, that’s all that matters. I’m just trying to go out and do my job, and keeping it simple is helping me out so far."

Russo's far from the only one putting up impressive power numbers. Senior infielder Chad Sedio has crushed six homers this season, while sophomore infielder Ross Haffey has smacked five. Russo, Sedio and Haffey have three of the four highest home run totals in the conference. Just behind them is freshman catcher Hayden Senger, who's quickly hit three homers in the first four weeks of his career.

"I’ve never really considered myself a power hitter, which really changed here," Senger said. "Coach Ison and Coach Hayden have really helped me get some power into my swing. I’ve never been big on it because I don’t go up there trying to swing as hard as I can most of the time. But my coaches have gotten me into hitting it over people’s heads."

While Miami's power has been locked in for the past two seasons, it's win total hasn't reflected it. The RedHawks have averaged 20 wins over the past two seasons, and the need for the other aspects of the game to step up hasn't been lost on Hayden.

"I think a big part of it is continuing to develop our pitching staff," Hayden said. "We’ve got a lot of young pitchers, and a lot of the mar throwing a lot. I don’t thin owe were tough enough as a pitching staff last season in terms of getting past an error or not getting three outs in a row. Our defense needs to get better too, and some of that is physical errors, and some of it is just mental toughness."

Still, there's good power, and then there's raw, game-changing power. For comparison, the RedHawks finished second in the MAC last season with 37 home runs in the season. At this time last year, they had just six.

Miami might give up a lot of runs (7.28 earned per game, in fact) and that may keep it from competing with the most complete teams in the conference. But the program seems to be on a good trajectory as its young pitching gains the necessary experience.

At the very least, the team's a home run derby worth catching up on.

Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly stated that Danny Hayden was in his second year as head coach. We apologize for the error.