CHAPEL HILL — When North Carolina ace Kent Emanuel left the game in the top of the third inning, it ended the shortest start for the reigning ACC Pitcher of the Year since his freshman season.
There were many crooked numbers in the juniors final line: 2 1/3 innings pitched, seven hits, four runs all earned, one walk and strikeout apiece, and 63 total pitches.
For the Tar Heels, though, that was a moot point Saturday, as Skye Bolts walk-off hit sealed a 6-5 victory and has UNC one win away from a return trip to Omaha.
Emanuel, drafted by the Houston Astros Friday with the first pick of the third round, couldnt explain immediately after the game why he struggled, saying he would have to review film before his next start. He mentioned one pitch in particular, the 1-2 pitch Joey Pankake hit over the left field fence. Emanuel thought it had been a good one, inside where he wanted it, but was just beat by a better swing.
The pitches Emanuel has thrown in the past week have gained national attention. After throwing 124 pitches in 7 2/3 innings against Towson last Saturday, Emanuel returned Monday to throw 51 more in relief against FAU. He struggled in both appearances, surrendering five runs each outing.
Prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament, Emanuel had been dominant, posting a 2.12 ERA in 110 2/3 innings. Since the road to Omaha began, though, he as a 12.00 ERA in 11 2/3 innings, throwing 238 pitches over those seven days.
Both Emanuel and Fox who called pitch counts overrated Thursday dismissed any notion that the Tar Heels ace could be tired.
You spend a lot of time preparing to be able to throw and do stuff like this, so its a non-factor, Emanuel said.
His problem today, Fox said, was he was unable to locate his off-speed pitches or command his breaking ball, leaving him to rely on his fastball, which normally hovers around 87-89 mph.
We got good pitches to hit, Gamecocks had coach Chad Holbrook said of the early innings, and we capitalized on them.
But once Emanuel left the game in the top of the third with runners on second and third with one out, the Gamecocks lost their ability to come up with timely hits. Chris Munnelly induced two ground ball outs to end the inning, and he and the other four relief pitchers Chris Munnelly, Tate Parrish, Chris McCue and Trent Thornton combined for just one run over the final 6 2/3 innings.
The pitching-by-committee approach worked for North Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed and only team in the country to avoid losing back-to-back games this year. The 56th Tar Heels victory of the year was what Emanuel was focusing on after Bolts walk-off hit hes hoping hell have plenty of time to focus on himself next week.
We won, so Im happy, Emanuel said. But Ill have to go back and look at it and prepare for my next start. Hopefully, its in Nebraska.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley