CHAPEL HILL — In the late hours of Monday night and early Tuesday morning, Scott Forbes’ phone lit up with text messages. Forbes is the pitching coach at North Carolina, and he was in the midst of a long night.
The Tar Heels’ pitching staff was enduring its most difficult innings of the season. It had surrendered four home runs – “the cycle in home runs,” Forbes said later – and already people had started to criticize how UNC had used some of its starting pitchers as relievers during an eventual 13-inning victory against Florida Atlantic.
Some of the texts Forbes received came from Matt Harvey and Alex White, two former UNC pitchers who are now in the Major Leagues. Their messages were simple, Forbes said: “(Critics) don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Entering UNC’s best-of-3 series against South Carolina in an NCAA tournament Super Regional, both Forbes and Tar Heels coach Mike Fox have spent portions of the past few days defending their decisions from earlier this week. They’ve had to answer questions about whether it was the right thing to use starting pitchers as relievers, and whether they’re normally-reliable pitching staff is in good shape following a run of postseason extra-innings games.
“Criticism, that comes with it,” Fox said Thursday, a day before his team’s first game against the Gamecocks at Boshamer Stadium. “They can criticize me all they want to, just don’t criticize the players. But again, we worked very hard to get to this point and we know our pitchers.
“Coach Forbes knows them better than I. And there’s always going to be criticism and debate about fresh, tired, experience, that sort of thing. I understand that. If things work according to plan, there’s not a lot of question and criticism.”
If things had gone according to plan, then Kent Emanuel, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, would have closed out a relatively easy 6-2 victory Monday night. But things didn’t go according to plan. Emanuel surrendered two runs and then left the bases loaded for Benton Moss, the Heels’ No. 2 pitcher. He then gave up a grand slam.
Just like that, UNC trailed 8-6. The Tar Heels came back then. And came back again in the 12th inning, when Florida Atlantic used a three-run home run to take another lead. By the end of the night, UNC had used Emanuel, Moss and Hobbs Johnson – the three starting pitchers most responsible for Tar Heels’ pitching success this season.
The decision to use those three as relievers would have been controversial regardless of the circumstances. But it was especially controversial given that Emanuel had just thrown 124 pitches during his start against Towson June 1. He threw 51 more two days later against Florida Atlantic.
“I think it’s one of the worst things in college baseball,” said John Manuel, the editor of Baseball America who worked the game as a broadcaster on Monday night. “You are putting the player’s health at risk to try to win a game. Essentially what the Carolina coaching staff did ... is put their desire to win the regional above the potential major league future of Kent Emanuel.”
Emanuel on Thursday downplayed the controversy. He is scheduled to start Saturday against South Carolina, regardless of whether that’s the second game of the series, as it stands now, or if it’s the first game, should Friday’s opener be postponed.
“It’s really been blown out of proportion, I think,” Emanuel said. “I spend every day preparing to throw. ... I think it’s a testament to our competitiveness and our work ethic, to be able to know that our bodies can handle that.”
The game against Florida Atlantic, and particularly the final four innings, received national attention. The focus had been on the ending.
But even before then, UNC’s dependable pitching staff showed signs of fatigue during the Chapel Hill Regional. Moss, who has been a reliable No. 2 weekend starter throughout the season, struggled for the second consecutive start May 31 against Canisius.
On June 1 against Towson, Emanuel was dominant until tiring late. Johnson, meanwhile, didn’t allow a hit June 2 in the first game against Florida Atlantic, but he did walk five batters in six innings of an eventual 3-2 loss against the Owls.
It’s fair to question whether all the innings the Tar Heels have played recently are beginning to catch up. There was a 14-inning victory against Clemson in the ACC tournament, followed by an 18-inning victory against N.C. State. Then came the 13 innings against FAU.
“We went back and looked at some of the tape,” Fox said of his team’s pitching in the regional. “And most of the balls that were hit (were) just not quite in the right spot. It’d be 90, 91 (mph) but these are good players with some strength. We have to pitch well. We’ve got to make better pitches.
“But we trust our pitching staff. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”
If UNC and South Carolina play Friday, Johnson will start for the Tar Heels. He threw only six pitches Monday night. Fox dismissed the notion of pitch counts, anyway, and said they were “overrated.”
Asked if he thought college baseball should have mandatory pitch count limits, Fox said that would be a “terrible idea.”
After their memorable victory against Florida Atlantic, Fox defended his use of his starters and said he and his coaches stood behind their reputation of protecting pitchers’ arms. On Thursday he didn’t seem worried about his staff, or its recent workload – and neither did Johnson.
“I feel better than I have the whole year,” Johnson said. “My velocity’s much better than it’s been all year. And the body just feels like it’s finally getting to that peak performance.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter