UNC to showcase deep pitching staff

pitch

Pitcher R.C. Orlan. The Tar Heels completed a three-game sweep of the Clemson Tigers with a 5-4 victory on April 3.

Mike Fox knows how it’ll begin and how it’ll end, but what’s in between is still a work in progress.

With opening day against Xavier set for Friday, the North Carolina baseball coach is tasked with organizing the talented cluster of arms that fall between ace starter Kent Emanuel and junior closer Michael Morin.

Fortunately for the Tar Heels, there are plenty of options from which to choose.

Infobox

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

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

“Our bullpen was deep last year, but I think it might even be deeper this year,” Emanuel said. “We feel like we could just go out one weekend and the coaches just assign each pitcher one or two innings, and we’d be fine.”

Of course, the Tar Heels would likely be fine with just Emanuel on the mound, too.

The lefthander burst onto the scene as a freshman last season, leading the weekend rotation with a 2.33 ERA while punching out 89 batters in 104.1 innings.

Emanuel twice finished what he started, notching two complete games — including a four-hit shutout against Texas in the College World Series.

Fox said the sophomore will take the Friday starting slot in place of Patrick Johnson, who the Colorado Rockies drafted in 2011 after he won 13 games for the Tar Heels last season.

The other weekend spots haven’t been announced, but frontrunners have emerged.

“Chris Munnelly’s certainly been one in the mix because he’s started a lot of games for us as a freshman and a sophomore. He’s got big-game experience,” Fox said.

“And right now Chris O’Brien has pushed himself in front of everybody else because he’s a strike thrower … and he reminds us a lot of Kent as far as his maturity.”

O’Brien, a lefty, is one of nine freshmen to join the pitching staff this season, and while only a handful may see starting time, the rest should fortify a bullpen that was already a strength last season.

“I think our bullpen is just going to be stacked,” said catcher Jacob Stallings. “I mean, we have so many guys that we feel very comfortable with bringing out any time. We’ve got three or four lefties that we can bring out and feel very confident in. And obviously Morin at the back — we feel confident with him.”

A 6-foot-4 junior from Kansas, Morin has bounced around a bit in his Tar Heel career.

After working mainly in middle relief as a freshman, Morin made a bid for the starting rotation last season. He made six starts out of the Sunday rotation spot, but a 6.11 ERA in those games would eventually force him out of the role.

That ended up being good news for the Tar Heels.

It was in the bullpen where Morin truly came into his own. He racked up a team-leading 10 saves and a respectable 3.50 ERA as he settled in as the team’s closer.

And Fox said he fully expects Morin to occupy that role again.

“I think he likes pitching in that role,” Fox said. “Our team likes him in that role and has confidence in him, so right now that’s where he is.”

Together, Morin and Emanuel bookend a talented flock of pitchers, but it’s a group that certainly contains some unknowns.

Still, the Tar Heels have faith that, no matter how it aligns, the pitching staff will be a force to reckon with for all nine innings.

“With Kent in the rotation,” Stallings said, “and that strong of a bullpen, we definitely like our chances.”

Contact the Sports Editor

at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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