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The Daily Tar Heel

Pitching depth vital as UNC looks to make postseason run

Before the season started, coach Mike Fox said the strength of his North Carolina baseball team was going to be the depth of the pitching staff.

I was skeptical.

Yes, the Tar Heels have 18 pitchers on the roster, which is the third most in the conference, but almost half of them are freshmen and 13 of them are sophomores or younger.

Though talented, experience was not a strength coming into the season.

And that became clear as Fox and pitching coach Scott Forbes shifted around the weekend rotation early in the season.

But, skeptical as I was of those young arms, they have proven me wrong as the season makes its turn to the postseason. They have become the most efficient pitching staff in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That’s no easy task, as the ACC is arguably one of the top two conferences in the country.

But the starting rotation doesn’t look much like it did back in February.

In the season-opening series, the Tar Heels started sophomore Kent Emanuel, freshman Chris O’Brien and freshman Benton Moss.

UNC dropped the middle game of that series with Xavier and gave up a season-high 22 runs on the weekend.

Emanuel, who is the staff ace, has remained the Friday starter all season long. The other two spots have switched around. O’Brien was bumped to the Sunday spot after that opening weekend, and junior Chris Munnelly became the Saturday starter.

UNC used that rotation for three weekends before Moss worked his way back into the last weekend starter spot.

Moss battled some consistency issues even after coming back to the weekend role. He struggled against Boston College and couldn’t make it out of the second inning, and against Duke he labored for four long innings.

But by the Virginia Tech series last weekend, he seemed to have found his form. The same could be said for the rest of the staff.

In the Tar Heel’s tenth series of the year, against Georgia Tech, Moss started Saturday and freshman Hobbs Johnson made his first weekend start. That’s the way the rotation has looked ever since.

And this past weekend in the final series of the season, Emanuel, Moss and Johnson each had quality starts as UNC swept Virginia Tech.

Johnson especially shined, as he carried a perfect game into the eighth inning.

Despite their youth, the North Carolina pitching staff posted an ACC-best 2.61 team ERA – but that isn’t just because of the starters.

Junior R.C. Orlan leads the team in appearances, with 35, and has been a crucial fixture for the Tar Heels out of the pen with eight wins. And of course, the entire staff benefits from having closer Michael Morin protecting the back end of the ball game.

Morin leads the ACC with 17 saves and has a dominating, team-low ERA of .91.

With the conference tournament going on this week, the Tar Heels have the depth to do some damage. And given their record, 42-13, and rank, No. 8, they are poised to make another run for Omaha – starting right here in Chapel Hill during the regional round next weekend.

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Contact the Sports Editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.