UNC baseball enters ACC tournament on a hot streak

acarter@newsobserver.comMay 22, 2012 

— North Carolina doesn’t enter the ACC baseball tournament as the favorite – that would be top-seeded Florida State – but no team will arrive here Wednesday for the start of the eight-team tournament with more momentum than the Tar Heels.

Since an 8-4 loss against UNC-Greensboro on April 24, UNC has won 13 consecutive games. If they haven’t done enough to earn a national seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament, UNC can likely secure the opportunity to host an NCAA Super Regional with a strong performance in the coming days at NewBridge Bank Park.

“I don’t put much stock into that,” UNC coach Mike Fox said Tuesday when asked how confident he was about hosting a Super Regional. “I’m glad we’re mentioned in there, but I certainly don’t think it’s a given. I think we need to play well in [the ACC] tournament and win a few games, hopefully.”

While UNC’s offense has improved of late – the Heels have scored in double figures in three of their last six games – pitching has been the team’s unquestioned strength. Kent Emanuel, a left-handed sophomore scheduled to start Thursday night against Miami (34-19, 16-14), leads UNC’s starters with a 1.80 ERA.

He is one of the Heels’ six regular pitchers who will enter the ACC tournament with a sub-3.00 ERA.

“Everything is there for our pitching staff to succeed,” said Emanuel, who earned first-team All-ACC honors this season. “We’ve got a ton of [defensive] support, and it’s so competitive. Our pitching staff is so deep that you’re going to have to do well if you want to get out there.

“So I think competition is probably the number one thing that makes us have such a good pitching staff.”

As for UNC’s recent success, it doesn’t hurt that Colin Moran returned earlier this month from the broken right hand he suffered after a loss against N.C. State in March. Moran broke his hand in a moment of frustration when he punched a door, but he’s hitting .375 in the 12 games since his return.

Having Moran back also allowed Fox to better align his infield defensively. With Moran back at third base, Michael Russell moved to shortstop, and Tommy Coyle to second. The Heels have been a stronger defensive team because of it.

“We had to start playing better defense,” Fox said, “because it was going to kill us if we didn’t.”

Indeed, the Heels are alive and well entering the ACC tournament, but they’ll face plenty of challenges from a field that includes eight teams ranked among the top 40 in college baseball’s RPI. Here’s a guide of what to know – and who to watch – when the tournament begins Wednesday at 11 a.m. with top-seeded Florida State facing eighth-seeded Georgia Tech (32-24, 12-18):

The tournament favorites:

• Florida State (43-12, 24-6 ACC): The Seminoles, led by ACC Player of the Year James Ramsey (.380, 11 HR, 45 RBI) have possessed the best mix of hitting and pitching in the conference – at least in league play. But they enter the tournament on somewhat of a down note, with losses in four of their last seven games.

• North Carolina (42-13, 22-8 ACC): The Heels have been a stronger team since the return of all-ACC third baseman Colin Moran, and the strength of the pitching staff has never been a question.

But don’t forget about:

• N.C. State (38-15, 19-11): The third-seeded Wolfpack, ranked No. 15 nationally by Baseball America, have been the tournament runner-up four times since 2001. With ACC pitcher of the Year Carlos Rodon, a freshman, and a potent offense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to again see N.C. State playing for the championship on Sunday.

• Miami (34-19, 16-14): The Hurricanes rank second in the conference behind UNC in team ERA (2.93). But Miami’s hitting – the team ranks second-to-last in the league in batting average – has been absent at times.

Five position players who could make a difference:

• Jayce Boyd, Florida State, 1B: With a .399 batting average, Boyd ran away with the ACC’s batting title. He doesn’t often hit for power, but his .467 on-base percentage ranks fourth in the conference.

• Ryan Mathews, N.C. State, OF: Mathews ranks second in the conference in slugging percentage (.663) and is among the league leaders in RBIs and home runs.

• James Ramsey, Florida State, OF: The ACC’s player of the year reaches base 52 percent of the time, which leads the league.

• Trea Turner, N.C. State, 3B: The Wolfpack freshman is one of the most exciting players in the ACC, and his league-leading 54 stolen bases are 32 more than his closest competition in that category.

• Mac Williamson, Wake Forest, OF: If the seventh-seeded Demon Deacons are to be a factor this week, Williamson will likely need to produce. He’s the ACC’s home run leader, with 17.

Pitchers to watch:

• Kent Emanuel, UNC: Emanuel, who has held opposing batters to a .232 average, will start for the Heels on Thursday afternoon against Miami.

• Buck Farmer, Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets could make things interesting if they upset Florida State today and for that to happen, Farmer likely needs to be dominant. He has at times this season, with 104 strikeouts - second-most of any pitcher in the tournament.

• Carlos Rodon, N.C. State: Rodon finished his magnificent freshman season with a 9-0 record, a 1.59 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 96 innings pitched. The only question is when, exactly, he’ll start this week.

• Michael Morin, UNC: If UNC has a late-game lead, it’s usually quite safe because of Morin. He’s the ACC’s saves leader, with 17, and opponents are batting .192 against him.

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IF YOU GO:

When: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday (game times of 11 a.m., 3 p.m., 7 p.m.); and Sunday (noon championship game).

Where: NewBridge Bank Park, Greensboro

Tickets: Adult passes for the full 13-game tournament may be purchased for $130. Single-game ticket prices for the Wednesday through Saturday games are: Adults (13 and over) - $10 in the seating bowl; $8 on the lawn. For children (5-12) - $5 in seating bowl; $4 on the lawn. (Four years of age and younger admitted free).

Parking: Parking is available in lots around the stadium for various prices.

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