CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina baseball coaches Scott Forbes and Scott Jackson spend a lot of time on the road together, recruiting, talking and sharing ideas. Sometimes, Forbes said, the conversation turns to what the perfect college pitching staff would look like and how they’d construct it.
“You have a legitimate four starters that you feel like could pitch into the sixth inning,” said Forbes, the Tar Heels’ pitching coach. “And then have a legitimate bullpen that would include right-handers and left-handers. And with different looks.”
If there was such a thing as a perfect college pitching staff, it might look a lot like the one Forbes coaches – the one that led UNC to the No. 6 national seed in the NCAA tournament beginning Friday. The Tar Heels, who are scheduled to open this afternoon at home against Cornell, are among the favorites to reach the College World Series because of their pitching.
Mike Fox, in his 13th season as UNC’s head coach, has built his program on the strength of his pitching staffs. Two former UNC pitchers, Andrew Miller in 2006 and Levi Michael in 2011, were top-10 selections in the Major League Baseball draft. Overall, though, Fox said earlier this week that his current staff is the best he has had here.
“Probably top to bottom with the options that we have,” Fox said. “We’ve obviously had some good pitching staffs here. We’ve had to rely sometimes maybe on one or two guys that maybe didn’t have quite the rest that they needed.
“And we really don’t feel like we’ve ever been in a situation all year where we’ve put a pitcher out there that wasn’t 100 percent, that had enough rest and could give us everything he had for however long that was.”
Quality pitching can be elusive at any level, but it seems especially so in college baseball, a sport long known for its high-scoring offenses and aluminum-bat-powered home runs. The success of the Tar Heels’ staff, though, has been historic.
UNC’s 1-0 12-inning victory against N.C. State last week represented the first extra-innings shutout in ACC tournament history. The Heels’ 2.54 ERA is the third-lowest in the nation, and would be the fourth-lowest in school history.
None of UNC’s top three starting pitchers has an ERA greater than 2.03, and its bullpen hasn’t made it any easier for opponents. Michael Morin, the team’s closer, has converted 17 of his 18 save opportunities and carries a 0.83 ERA into the NCAA tournament.
Starting pitcher Hobbs Johnson had no idea he was a part of history. The sophomore left-hander will start for the Heels tonight against Cornell. Told about UNC’s gaudy pitching statistics, Johnson shrugged as if to imply he wasn’t impressed.
“Coach [Forbes] tells us all the time, not to get too high, not to get too low,” he said. “So, I mean, even when we go out and shut a team out or whatever, we’re still working the same way we usually do.”
Even Forbes has a difficult time explaining the success of his pitching staff. He thought the group had this kind of potential, and he was especially pleased entering the season with UNC’s pitching depth.
If the Heels’ pitchers do share common characteristics, it probably has less to do with their arms, and what they throw, and more to do with their attitudes and ability to work. The staff’s depth has made competition fierce.
“People say, ‘Well, there’s more pressure on your staff if we’re not scoring,’” Forbes said. “And our pitching staff takes it the opposite. They’re like, ‘We want to be the reason [we win] … we want to hold teams to no runs, or one run. If we have to win 1-0, then that’s what we’ll do.’”
The Heels have, in fact, done that twice. Those two 1-0 victories represent two of UNC’s nine shutouts. Forbes’ staff hasn’t been perfect in those games, not in the way the word applies to baseball. Entering the tournament, though, the Heels’ pitching staff, which has allowed 20 earned runs in its past 20 games, has reached a level other teams seldom have.