Tar Heels tweak lineup, hope to avoid elimination
OMAHA, Neb. — In Monday’s practice, one day before North Carolina’s elimination bout against Louisiana State, pitching coach Scott Forbes made a statement that now seems more like a prediction.
“To make a run, no matter what, in the winner’s bracket or the loser’s bracket, somebody is going to have to step up in a role that they haven’t been in a lot,” Forbes said.
True to Forbes’ words, closer Trent Thornton started Tuesday for the first time since March 27 and hurled a career-high 114 pitches in a seven-inning, two-run gem. Reliever Chris McCue, in turn, stepped into Thornton’s closer role and recorded just his second save of the season.
On the offensive side, Brian Holberton and Skye Bolt switched spots in the batting order and both delivered — Holberton hit a two-run home run in the first, and Bolt added insurance with an RBI single in the seventh.
It wasn’t the conventional UNC lineup, but the tweaks worked to perfection. UNC won 4-2 to stay alive in the College World Series.
As UNC proceeds in the loser’s bracket, its next game coming Thursday against N.C. State, those kinds of tweaks may become the norm. With elimination on the line, the Tar Heels have proved willing to stray from the methods they’ve relied on for most of the season.
Holberton’s first-inning home run Tuesday in particular was an immediate payoff for the coaching staff’s tinkering. Bolt had been batting just .188 in postseason play in the cleanup spot heading into the game — Holberton is slugging .639 and batting .417.
“It made the move look good,” coach Mike Fox said. “We felt we needed to move some things around a little bit, and really we did think about that, that having Brian in there, he can do a lot of things for us besides hit a home run … Paid off today. He did well.”
On the pitching end, the changes came out of necessity.
The weekend rotation — Kent Emanuel, Hobbs Johnson and Benton Moss — has struggled, pitching to an 11.40, 7.04 and 6.43 ERA, respectively. Consequently, Thornton has carried most of the load, leading the team in innings heading into the College World Series.
Forbes said before the start that Thornton would likely start again if the Tar Heels advance far enough.
As for how the rest of the pitching staff lines up, UNC coaches have several options to mull over. Do they bring back Emanuel, who lasted just 2.2 innings against N.C. State on Sunday? Will Thornton close again? And when will Moss and Johnson see action in Omaha?
“They’ll have to start some games for us,” Fox said. “Hopefully more than one. We need to get a good start out of whichever one that is. And possibly Kent (Emanuel) can come back, so we can’t look too far ahead. It’s just about winning, trying to win the next one.”
And to win, UNC might need to continue its creativity.
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