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Wednesday December 8th

Bullpen leads UNC defense

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North Carolina coach Mike Fox just wanted a good start.

On Sunday, Fox said a good performance from freshman right-handed pitcher Benton Moss would be one of the keys to taking the all-tied-up series from N.C. State.

But on Monday, Moss took the mound and gave what Fox called a “slow as molasses” performance for just 2.1 innings.

His early departure matched that of Sunday’s starter Chris Munnelly, who lasted 2 innings, but soon made way for the star of UNC’s defensive effort in the series win against N.C. State — its bullpen.

“We knew going into the season that that was going to be our strength,” catcher Jacob Stallings said. “We felt like the best part of our team would be our bullpen and the depth that we have out there.”

While the Tar Heels struggled to plate runners on offense until Monday’s grand slam and two-run homer performance, their relief pitchers provided a solid safety net throughout the series.

“I still think the game (Monday) was won pitching-wise,” Fox said. “And I think we’re going to have to win a lot of games that way. You look up on the line score and you usually don’t win when you make five hits and make three errors, except you have to go to that pitching column and see how many earned runs you gave up.”

In Monday’s 7-4 series clincher, the earned run column carried just one, after reliever R.C. Orlan gave up a triple in the sixth inning that eventually led to a Wolfpack score.

Until that run, the Tar Heels’ bullpen hadn’t given up a run, earned or unearned, all weekend long in 12.2 innings of total work.

“We just have a lot of arms — just good, quality arms,” closer Michael Morin said. “It was really, really competitive in the fall so just being able to continue to work hard. You’re trying to beat out the guy next to you, and I think that’s helped our team.”

It’s certainly helped Morin, who earned his eighth — and longest — save of the season Monday when he pitched for 2.1 innings for three strikeouts and no hits. He’s currently tied for most saves in the ACC.

Although he’s done it before, coming into the game during the seventh inning is atypical for Morin, a ninth-inning regular.

In this game, though, it was what he asked for, especially the day after he earned his second win of the season on Sunday.

“I talked to our pitching coach, Coach Forbes, earlier,” Morin said. “I threw (Sunday) but I hadn’t thrown in the previous couple of days, so it was one of those situations where I told him that I wanted the ball. Whether it was the fourth or fifth inning or the ninth, I wanted to be out there.”

That attitude is exactly what Fox is looking for as he points to the bullpen’s importance more and more with UNC’s recently struggling, Colin Moran-less offense.

“You can lose two or three really good hitters, but as long as you’ve got three or four really good pitchers, you have a chance to win,” Fox said. “We would really be up a creek if what happened to (Matt) Roberts and Moran happened to (Kent) Emanuel and Morin.”

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