As North Carolina opens its season against Xavier, Emanuel will step on the Boshamer Stadium mound as the Tar Heel ace.
And unlike that day in Illinois, a strike shouldn’t be too hard to come by.
One of a kind
On June 20, 2011, Emanuel allowed his team to breathe a little easier.
It was game two of the College World Series, and the Tar Heels had their backs pressed firmly against the wall after losing to Vanderbilt two days earlier.
Then Emanuel took the mound. He chewed through the Texas Longhorns’ lineup, facing just one batter more than the minimum as he blanked his opponent for nine innings.
With that last start, he put a bow on what had already been an incomparable freshman season.
“Kent was more game ready than any freshman I’ve ever come across,” senior catcher Jacob Stallings said. “He knows he’s good, and he’s got a lot of confidence, and he just goes out there and competes.”
Emanuel’s first collegiate start was a five-inning, two-run affair — not spectacular, but serviceable.
His second start was an eight-inning, nine-strikeout gem.
His third start: six innings of shutout baseball.
By the end of the season, Emanuel put up a 9-1 record, a team-leading 2.33 ERA and fanned 89 batters in 104.1 innings of work.
For a pitcher just getting his feet wet at the collegiate level, there was virtually no learning curve.
“He was very well coached in high school,” coach Mike Fox said. “And he picks things up really, really quickly.”
Back to Georgia
After his brief childhood summer in Chicago, Emanuel and his family finally settled in Woodstock, Ga., and it was there that Emanuel pursued his newfound love for pitching.
When he joined the Woodstock High baseball team, it was clear to coach Scott Krug that the young pitcher had spent some time refining his craft.
“When he got to high school, he was about the most flawless mechanical pitcher we’ve ever had,” Krug said. “And we’ve had some guys pitch well before.”
But Emanuel can’t pinpoint the exact moment he developed a feel for pitching.
He said he’s simply been blessed with the ability to throw the ball where he wants to.
“I think ever since I started, I got lucky,” Emanuel said. “My mechanics have always been pretty clean, and it’s easier for me knowing that I don’t have to make too many adjustments.”
Emanuel spent most of his freshman year on the school’s junior varsity squad, but he quickly shot up the pecking order. He solidified a spot as the varsity team’s No. 2 starter the next year and won Cherokee County Male Athlete of the Year as a junior.
As a senior, Emanuel’s numbers were so impressive that Krug can still rattle them off: 114 strikeouts to just eight walks in a little more than 50 innings pitched.
But despite Emanuel’s overwhelming success, the pitcher isn’t one to let it bloat his ego.
“A lot of kids that are as good as he is kind of have a chip on their shoulder, but he was never like that,” Krug said. “He has unbelievable maturity in the things he’s capable of doing and the way that he treats people.
“He’s almost like a fairytale kind of kid where you can’t really believe the stuff he’s willing to do and has done.”
Mixing and matching
Fastball, changeup, curveball, slider, forkball.
Each pitch involves a different grip, breaks in a different fashion and arrives at a different pace.
But when delivered from the arm of Emanuel, they all find their way to the same location — wherever Jacob Stallings sets his catcher’s mitt.
“When he throws three balls to a hitter, we’re like ‘Oh, God,’” Fox said. “I mean, we’re surprised. He hates walking guys. He makes them hit.”
For all his glitzy numbers, Emanuel doesn’t particularly light up the radar gun. On a good day, his fastball doesn’t touch much more than 90 miles per hour.
But he can throw strikes — and quality ones at that.
The crafty southpaw keeps hitters on their toes with a big, sweeping knee-buckler of a curveball and a Bugs Bunny changeup that Baseball America calls the best in the ACC.
Perhaps more importantly, he isn’t afraid to pitch inside.
“He can pitch in to right-handed hitters, which is a trait a lot of lefties don’t have,” Fox said. “Sometimes the knock against lefties if they’re not overpowering is they can get left-handed hitters out, but they can’t get righties out. And that’s not the case with Kent.”
Emanuel uses his superior control to dot every quadrant of the strikezone, not just the inside corner. With just 23 walks to 89 strikeouts last season, he effectively kept hitters off balance, mixing and matching his off-speed offerings with a well-located heater.
It’s a style that left-handed pitchers have employed with great success at the major league level. But Emanuel isn’t looking to any of them in particular.
“Obviously, I’ve watched the big leagues my whole life, and I love watching different pitchers, but there isn’t anyone where I’ve kind of dedicated like, ‘Oh, I want to be like this guy,’” Emanuel said. “I take pride in being myself.”
Building a future
Emanuel’s Tar Heel career almost ended before it began.
After his stellar high school career, the pitcher drew sizable buzz during the 2010 Major League Baseball draft, but signability issues sent him plummeting to the 19th round.
Emanuel was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but fortunately for the Tar Heels, he wasn’t enticed by their offer.
“I had set a number before the draft and sent it to all the other teams of what it would take to not come (to UNC),” Emanuel said. “And when the draft came up, I knew I has going to have to be picked really early if I was going to get what I was asking for.”
Emanuel wasn’t picked early, and he didn’t get what he was asking for. But that was OK.
The decision to come to UNC has done nothing but boost the pitcher’s value.
As of now, Baseball America lists Emanuel as the second-best 2013 draft prospect in the ACC, and Fox has no doubt that the pitcher’s services will be in high demand.
“We don’t expect to have him after his junior year,” Fox said. “And I hope we don’t. I hope he’s done enough here to put himself in a good position.”
In the next two seasons, Emanuel will have plenty of opportunity to do just that.
With the loss of senior Patrick Johnson, Emanuel will be handed Friday starting duties, and he has undoubtedly become the team’s ace — though the humble pitcher himself is reluctant to use that title.
Still, who could argue that he’s anything else?
As Emanuel starts UNC’s season opener today against Xavier, he’ll be coming off that phenomenal outing against Texas — one that took place on college baseball’s grandest stage.
And that ability didn’t come out of thin air. It’s been brewing since Emanuel’s first pitch from a Chicago pitching mound. It’s been admired by the likes of Scott Krug, Mike Fox and the Pittsburgh Pirates. And it could still launch Emanuel’s career to new heights.
“He could be one of the best ones we’ve ever had here,” Fox said. “Is he going to be a first-round pick? I don’t know.
“But there aren’t too many 6-foot-4 lefties out there that can throw strikes like he can.”
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