Luke DeCock

DeCock: Tar Heels get unexpectedly big start from big freshman

For the biggest game of the ACC season, North Carolina turned to its biggest pitcher.

Not one of the Tar Heels’ best pitchers. Those were all used up over the three days and 40 innings leading up to Sunday’s ACC championship game against Virginia Tech, the last of those completed a mere 13 hours earlier. There would be no argument, however, that Taylore Cherry was North Carolina’s biggest pitcher.

At 6-foot-8, 270 pounds, he would be the Tar Heels’ fourth-largest offensive lineman. A freshman of few pitches – he throws a two-seam fastball almost exclusively – and fewer words, with a buzz cut and baby face, Cherry had pitched 3 1/3 innings in five career appearances, none in the past month. His first career start would come with the ACC championship on the line.

“It didn’t sink in until this morning, because we were so dead tired,” Cherry said. “I was a little nervous.”

The nerves were long gone by the time he loaded the bases in the top of the fifth with a two-out walk, having already thrown more pitches Sunday than he had all season, desperately trying to hold a two-run lead as Chad Pinder, Virginia Tech’s best player, kept fouling off Cherry’s pitches.

His 12th offering finally induced a grounder to short, ending the inning. Catcher Matt Roberts came running up the baseline to embrace him and North Carolina coach Mike Fox led a group of a dozen Tar Heels to greet Cherry at the dugout steps. They could sense the stakes, and they were right. The Tar Heels would hold on for a 4-1 win and their first ACC title since 2007.

“We thought, hey, if he can give us three to four innings we’ll be pleased to death,” North Carolina pitching coach Scott Forbes said. “And he almost gave us six innings. So I thought he did a great job. The 3-2 pitch to Pinder just tells you all you need to know about Taylore Cherry. He shook to a fastball in – just attacked him. Tells me he’s got some cojones.”

Cherry went back out for the sixth, gave up a leadoff double and was done for the day. But he had given the Tar Heels five solid innings in the most desperate of circumstances.

“I was on the other side of it,” Virginia Tech coach Pete Hughes said, “but that was awesome to see.”

The Tar Heels were hoping to save Chris Munnelly for Sunday but had to use him in the 15th inning of Saturday night’s marathon against N.C. State. Trent Thornton, another possible Sunday starter, also pitched Saturday. Cherry was the Tar Heels’ best available arm. He was their last available arm.

A potential first-round pick last June before making it clear he would attend college, he was recruited out of Ohio to pitch in moments like this, just not yet. Stuck behind a long line of aces on the Carolina staff, he spent most of this season honing his technique and physique, shaving a few pounds off that roster weight. He showed some mobility, successfully handling four balls hit back to him, including one in the first inning that rocketed off his chest, leaving a giant welt – a wake-up call that this was really happening.

“We talk about that, how you never know when your moment is going to come,” Fox said. “He’s a great, great teammate and I couldn’t be happier for him to get an opportunity to do what he did and pitch as well as he did.”

North Carolina had some pretty good teams over the past six years that never won ACC titles. This one did, thanks to a big performance from a big freshman. Cherry’s name hasn’t come up often this season for the Tar Heels, but it will forever be linked to a championship.