When Luca Dalatri was cleared to resume pitching again in May, he knew he probably had three starts left, at a minimum: One to close out the regular season, and one each in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
With North Carolina advancing to the College World Series, Dalatri could end up making that many starts in Omaha alone. All told, since returning from a stress reaction in his throwing elbow that, at one point, he worried could be a career-threatening ligament issue, Dalatri could end up starting seven games down the stretch – not what he hoped coming into the season, but more than enough to justify his return.
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“It's the reason I came back, really,” Dalatri said. “I wanted to be on the field and everything, obviously, but I wanted to be with the team and give them a chance to win in situations like this. I knew that the ACC tournament wasn't going to be it, obviously. I had a feeling in the regional we were going to keep going. I couldn't be happier to give this team a chance to win, go out there and try to do my best. Given the circumstances, it's pretty crazy we're going to Omaha.”
Since the Tar Heels got most of this way without Dalatri, who was shut down in February after only two starts, getting their sophomore ace back at this late date has made him their not-so-secret weapon, a dynamic that will have an even greater impact in Omaha where the spread-out schedule gives a team's best pitchers a potential extra start.
It's too simplistic to say that the Tar Heels' early season struggles were because Dalatri exited so quickly or that their late-season resurgence was because of Dalatri's return, but neither was entirely a coincidence, either. His command of multiple out pitches and intimidating 6-foot-6 frame give the Tar Heels a different look on the mound, and getting him back after the Tar Heels thought they might have lost him provided a mental boost as well.
“Luca speaks to the attitude of this team,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “He was determined after three months, that 'I'm going to pitch, in some way, shape or form. I'm going to come back and help this team in some way.' I think that speaks to not only Luca but the mentality of our whole team. That helped more than anything: After all this time, he's fighting to get back. I think he believed he was going to have the opportunity to pitch more than one game or two.”
The combination of Dalatri's return and the April promotion of junior-college transfer Cooper Criswell from the bullpen settled North Carolina's rotation late in the season – there are four pitchers in the bullpen who have started more games than either of them – and that sense of security was palpable over the past two weekends. Dalatri didn't actually pitch all that well against Stetson in the super regional, but North Carolina still won, as it has in all four of Dalatri's late-season starts.
"It's no excuse that I'm only three weeks in," Dalatri said. "I have to pitch like a pitcher who's pitched for the whole year."
Dalatri's availability, as beneficial as it has been so far in the NCAA tournament, looms even larger in the College World Series because of the stretched-out schedule. Under normal circumstances, a starter can pitch once in a regional and once in a super-regional, which means a team's ace may throw only twice in as many as eight games (or as few as five).
But with a team playing every other day in Omaha for the first week, an ace can pitch three times in the same number of games, essentially increasing his value by 50 percent to a team in the championship series. A team that might need to start five different pitchers in a regional can ride three starters to the title in the College World Series.
That hasn't played to North Carolina's advantage in the past – Kent Emmanuel threw twice in four games for the Tar Heels in 2013, but lost both starts – but on paper, at least, it lends even more importance to Dalatri's return.
It doesn't really matter whether Dalatri starts against Oregon State on Saturday or is held until Monday, with Criswell getting the opener as he has throughout the postseason. Both Dalatri and Criswell would still each have a chance to start three games if North Carolina goes all the way. Fox said North Carolina will make that decision later, after more study of the Oregon State lineup.
Whatever Fox decides, it's a much easier decision now than it was a month ago.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock