UNC baseball looks to round out deep staff
With a weekend rotation as skilled as North Carolina’s, getting the first 24 outs in a ball game should rarely be an issue.
But the last three outs?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” baseball coach Mike Fox said. “I don’t know the answer to that. If we have a one-run game this time (on) Friday, you’ll see somebody out there, and if they get the last three, you might see them again the next day.”
Last season, that question was much easier to answer. The closer’s role was Michael Morin’s from day one. The junior righthander led the ACC with 19 saves, posted a 1.40 ERA and consistently closed the door on UNC’s opponents with his dive-bombing changeup.
But now Morin is gone, drafted by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the 13th round of the MLB Draft, and the void he left is one of the few holes on a highly lauded pitching staff.
The Tar Heels’ next closer could be Mason McCullough, the flame-throwing righthander from Shelby who hit 95 mph in Friday afternoon’s scrimmage. It could be Trevor Kelley, the sidewinding sophomore who refined his throwing motion in the summer and dominated in the fall. It could also be Luis Paula, Chris McCue or even Trent Thornton — a freshman from Charlotte.
“They’re all in the mix,” Fox said. “It’s like a horse race. They’re all kind of rounding the back stretch coming in, and one of them’s going to have to stick their neck out there and get the job.”
The Tar Heels are no strangers to that sort of intrasquad competition. They’ve had a wealth of talented arms in each of the past couple of seasons, fostering a competitive environment and creating some difficult decisions for Fox and pitching coach Scott Forbes.
“I think it just goes to show the depth of our pitching staff as a whole, because we have guys still fighting for innings just within the team,” ace lefthander Kent Emanuel said. “So we push each other, and if you don’t perform, you’re gonna get surpassed.”
In that Darwinian battle of the fittest, Emanuel emerged on top in his freshman year and has been a stalwart at the front of the rotation ever since.
Now a junior, Emanuel fronts a weekend rotation that also includes sophomore right-hander Benton Moss and late-blooming lefty Hobbs Johnson — all of whom posted ERAs below two last season.
The rotation is settled. Now, competition must churn out a closer.
“It’s a process,” junior catcher Matt Roberts said.
“We have guys that we may put in that situation in our situational scrimmages to see who can handle pressure and can do the job, and there’s plenty of candidates in the bullpen for that job.”
Roberts has had a front-row view in that audition process from his position behind the plate. And while the closer role is still up in the air, he’s confident his team can pitch its way back to the College World Series.
“Oh, we’re going to Omaha,” Roberts said. “There’s no question about it.”
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