Hobbs Johnson against N.C. State an "easy" decision

The left-hander will take the ball for UNC tonight in an elimination game.

OMAHA, Neb. — Pitching coach Scott Forbes sets the example for his staff.

He chooses North Carolina (58-11) starting pitchers based on who is throwing best, paying little mind to opponents’ weaknesses.

“We all have the same approach,” Hobbs Johnson said. “Coach Forbes’ big thing is we don’t pitch to other team’s weakness. We pitch to our strengths.”

Adhering to that philosophy, in light of the postseason performances given by each of the three pitchers in the Tar Heels’ weekend rotation, made Forbes’ decision to throw Johnson against N.C. State tonight a simple one.

“I thought it was pretty easy,” Forbes said. “I look at Hobbs’ last eight outings, besides his last one, I thought he’d been outstanding. You look in the regionals, and he pitched (six) innings with one hit … He’s been throwing good. I thought it was a good matchup against whoever — UCLA or N.C. State.

“So it’s a pretty easy decision.”

For Johnson, who delivered the most solid postseason start in throwing six hitless innings against FAU June 2, the focus will be to continue throwing the controlled fastball that is his strength.

“Hobbs is a velo guy — he’s not a soft thrower,” Forbes said. “He’s going to challenge you with his fastball. That’s been effective in his outings, especially against N.C. State, and I think if he can do the same thing he did in the (ACC) Tournament and attack the strike zone with his fastball, we’re going to have some success.”

In Johnson’s last start against N.C. State, the southpaw threw a career-high 9 strikeouts as part of UNC’s 2-1 18-inning win.

The power pitcher will match up against the Wolfpack’s Brad Stone, a freshman lefty who will make his 14th career start.

Stone will be the seventh left-hander UNC has faced in the postseason, a trend leadoff man Chaz Frank noted earlier in the week before facing LSU’s lefty Cody Glenn. But matching North Carolina’s six (or seven, depending on the swinging of Skye Bolt, who can do both) left-handed batters from the mound seems to be a tiring strategy. Despite left-handers being responsible for all three of the Tar Heels’ postseason losses, the offense showed promise in the situation against Glenn, who only lasted two innings Tuesday.

From the offensive perspective, N.C. State’s leadoff hitter Trea Turner holds a team-high .373 average. The most memorable ball he hit in Tuesday’s game against UCLA went to the warning track, not out of the park, to start considerable conversation about the size of TD Ameritrade. Forbes and coach Mike Fox said their pitchers need to take advantage of the ballpark’s size.

“You can’t be afraid to challenge guys in 3-1 counts,” Fox said. “You watch all the other teams out here, they’re pitching at the very top of the strike zone 86, 87 (mph).

“I mean (they’re saying) ‘Go ahead, hit it, hit a fly ball, we’re not going to walk you,’ Walks are a death sentence out here cause you want guys to hit it and you hope, obviously, they fall. I mean the last thing we want late in a game … is to walk, we want to make them swing.”

Knowing that the outfield eats fly balls, Fox’s offense will be following a strategic hitting strategy that matches what the No. 1-seeded team did against LSU.

Fox said he was uncertain of whether he’d place Brian Holberton in the four spot without knowing who N.C. State would throw at the end of Wednesday’s practice, but he said that regardless of the starter, it will be most critical for his team to play its own game well from the beginning in lieu of seeing Wolfpack ace Carlos Rodon come from the bullpen.

“Anytime you’re not facing (Rodon), it’s a good thing,” Fox said. “But we’ve still got to go out and play well. We need a good start.

“It’s more about trying to focus on our team, trying to get a good start out of our starter, hopefully getting a couple of runs, playing ahead, playing loose and trying to play our game.”

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