Baseball welcomes newcomers for spring

The start of a new baseball season comes with many things — midweek games and weekend series, sunshine and sunflower seeds, warm weather and warm-up pitches.

But it also means a group of new faces on the diamond.

North Carolina coach Mike Fox brought in 17 new players for the 2012 season including five players who were selected in the 2011 MLB draft but did not sign. Baseball America ranked the class as the 20th best in the country.

Baseball preview

This is the second story of a weeklong baseball preview series leading up to the Tar Heels’ season opener against Xavier on Friday.

Monday: Pitching
Today: Newcomers
Wednesday: Infield
Thursday: Outfield
Friday: Xavier preview

“We’ve got a number of young guys that are going to have an opportunity to probably get out and play for us a little bit,” Fox said. “How much, we’re not quite sure.”

Of the newcomers, the player likely to make the most immediate impact isn’t a freshman.

Cody Stubbs will be a junior this season after spending his freshman year at Tennessee and last season at Walters State, a junior college.

Stubbs was selected in the 14th round by the Washington Nationals in June, but the left-handed hitting first baseman wanted to make one more run for Omaha.

“That’s why I wanted to come to college, to play in Omaha and hopefully this year,” Stubbs said. “I guess it’s kind of hard to say what it takes to go to Omaha. These guys know a little more than I do.”

Fox said that Stubbs, a North Carolina native, will play first base and hit in the middle of the order for the Tar Heels, and his new teammates have taken to him rather quickly.

“One thing about Cody is, he’s one of our best players and he’s one of the hardest workers as well,” junior outfielder Chaz Frank said.

“That’s how you gotta play — just watch Cody Stubbs every day.”

Along with Stubbs, there will be some true freshmen making an impact this season, especially from the mound.

Freshman left-hander Chris O’Brien has been turning heads in his short time in Chapel Hill and is making a push to earn a spot in the starting rotation.

Righty Benton Moss, an Under Amour All-American, has also caught the eye of coach Fox with his performance in the preseason.

“On the pitching side, we’ve got a number of freshmen pitchers,” Fox said. “Probably Benton Moss, him or Chris O’Brien have stood out the most and have a chance to maybe earn a starting role for us here at some point.”

Mason McCullough, a righthanded pitcher from Shelby, has flashed some impressive heat for a freshman in fall and early spring practices. Using his 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame, McCullough has been throwing his fastball with mid-90s power.

“I love seeing our freshman Mason because last year we didn’t really have a flamethrower, so to speak,” sophomore pitcher Kent Emanuel said. “And seeing him throw the ball 95, 96 (mph) is crazy.”

Last season it was Emanuel who stole the show as a freshman, going 9-1 with a 2.33 ERA. This year he’s excited to see how this year’s class will fare when their number is called.

“I’m curious to see how all the freshmen do come game time because it always, always changes when real games come around,” he said.

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