Current Date: Sat, 08 Mar 2014 04:27:59 -0500
North Carolina ace Kent Emanuel had the chance Friday to do what many players can only dream of — start a game on a big-league mound.
The junior lefty took the hill at Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, for No. 1 UNC’s first game of three in the Astros Foundation College Classic.
It was a game that Emanuel had circled on his calendar for quite awhile, but that wasn’t simply because it was at a major league venue.
“To be honest with you, I was more excited about playing Rice than I was playing in a big-league ballpark,” Emanuel said in a telephone interview. “Rice is one of the better teams, and I knew we were facing another great pitcher, so I was excited to match up with them.”
As the first top-25 opponent UNC has faced this season, No. 12 Rice presented both a challenge and an early season test for the highly touted Tar Heels. UNC (10-0) ultimately prevailed — edging Rice 2-1, then toppling California and Texas A&M 11-5 and 14-2, respectively, on Saturday and Sunday.
But the weekend could have just as easily begun in defeat.
On Friday, the Owls sent ace right-hander Austin Kubitza to the mound, the man who Emanuel so eagerly anticipated facing. Coming into the game, Kubitza owned a 0.00 ERA and had struck out 25 batters in 13 innings pitched. And against UNC, Kubitza pitched as advertised.
He held UNC hitless through the first four innings and struck out nine batters through his 6.2 frames.
“He was really good,” freshman shortstop Landon Lassiter said. “He had great off-speed stuff. He kept our team off balance.”
Fortunately for UNC, the Tar Heels were able to match Kubitza’s performance with an ace of their own.
It was high-stakes pitcher’s duel — one that, as a Friday starter, Emanuel has experienced many times before.
“My mindset doesn’t change all that much,” said Emanuel, who allowed one run in seven innings. “It’s just your margin for error greatly decreases — runs are at a premium.”
In the remaining two days of the tournament, runs certainly weren’t at a premium, as UNC blew out the Golden Bears and the Aggies.
It was the first UNC roadtrip of the season, and it even offered the opportunity to bond as a team at the Houston Rodeo and a Brantley Gilbert concert.
“I think everything about it was perfect,” Emanuel said. “My freshman year, I know the guys that were on the team still stand by that Los Angeles trip being one of the main reasons why we ended up being so good, and hopefully this trip plays the same factor this season.”
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