Current Date: Wed, 12 Mar 2014 05:36:53 -0400
Mike Fox stood just outside of the Boshamer Stadium home dugout, snow still smattered in icy lumps around the field.
This was two weeks ago, Jan. 31, and the North Carolina baseball coach was lamenting that his team hadn’t been able to get much work in because of the weather.
“We’re just trying to manage the weather. It’s part of it,” he said. “But it seems like this preseason has been a little bit more of a challenge than previous ones.”
It continues to be a challenge.
The Tar Heels were supposed to open their season today in Chapel Hill against the College of Charleston. Instead, they’ll open Saturday in Charleston at 2 p.m., sending junior right-hander Benton Moss to the mound against Charleston sophomore Nathan Helvey.
Ready or not, the season is fast approaching, and it will offer an entirely different set of challenges.
The No. 13 Tar Heels, 59-12 last season, are looking to build on last year’s near-championship run, but they’ll be doing it without a large chunk of last year’s team.
Kent Emanuel, Hobbs Johnson, Chris Munnelly, Colin Moran, Cody Stubbs, Chaz Frank and Brian Holberton — that’s two starting pitchers, a long reliever and four batters at the top of the order — all of them are off with major league organizations.That’s a lot of veteran leadership to replace, but Fox said his team still has some pillars on which to lean.
“Michael Russell, I think from a position player’s standpoint is kind of the heart and soul of our team,” Fox said.
”Played for two years, a junior and one of our hardest workers, so I think everybody sort of looks to him, create some energy and hold guys accountable. Benton Moss, Chris McCue, those veterans on our pitching staff that set such a high standard, and they had some good examples last year. Some good role models to look at, and I think they’ll fill that role for us. They’re going to need to.”
Moss will front a rotation that also includes sophomore Trent Thornton — a jack-of-all-trades right-hander who started and closed for UNC last season — and freshman Zac Gallen, who impressed his coaching staff with his strike-throwing ability in the fall. McCue, who served as UNC’s closer in the College World Series, will likely fill that same role once the season begins.
The lineup, on the other hand, is abound with freshmen. Shortstop Michael Russell is the only starter returning to his natural position. Sophomore Skye Bolt will shift from right to center, and designated hitter Landon Lassiter — once he recovers from a broken foot — will shift from his natural position of shortstop to third base.
Despite being freshmen, both Bolt and Lassiter were lineup anchors last season, batting second and fourth in the lineup, respectively.
The Tar Heels will need to lean on them even more this year.
“I think since we are a year older now, we’re going to have to help some younger guys step into that role,” Lassiter said. “But I think we’ve got some guys ready to step into those roles and try to fill it as best they can.”
Can those freshmen fill the void left by the likes of Moran and Emanuel — who led UNC to Omaha, Neb., a year ago?
That will be answered in due time — once the snow melts.