Junior ace pitcher Kent Emanuel was the last man on the mound in the top-seeded North Carolina baseball team’s 5-4 victory against South Carolina Tuesday — the one that sent the team to the College World Series.
And the All-ACC pitcher, who earned his first career save in that game, will be first on the mound when UNC faces off against Tobacco Road rival N.C. State in its first game of double-elimination play in Omaha, Neb.
In a tournament filled with unknown opponents, drawing a well-known foe could prove advantageous to the Tar Heel coaching staff.
“(The coaches) were excited,” coach Mike Fox said. “Because they don’t have to do a scouting report.”
But UNC will still face its share of challenges, considering Emanuel won’t be the only first-team All-ACC pitcher starting Sunday at 3 p.m. The Wolfpack has a top-notch ace of its own in left-handed Carlos Rodon.
“(N.C. State) might be the best team in the nation when (it’s) got that guy on the mound,” UNC senior center fielder Chaz Frank said. “It’s going to be exciting. It couldn’t have set up any more perfect.”
And when it comes to facing the Tar Heels, Rodon has historically played better against UNC than other opponents, with a 0.84 ERA in 32.1 career innings of work against Tar Heel batters.
“I don’t think he likes UNC too much,” Frank said. “He steps it up when he plays against us.”
The last time Rodon faced UNC was in an 18-inning marathon of a pitchers’ duel in the ACC Tournament — a game in which he gave up one hit in 10 innings.
But by outlasting the sophomore, the Tar Heels came out victorious 2-1 — an outcome they hope to achieve again.
“With a guy like that on the mound, that’s all you can hope to do — outlast him and make him throw a lot of pitches,” Frank said.
But fighting against a pitcher known to overpower batters with a 90-plus-mph fastball and a breaking ball — one Frank said is just as good — is easier said than done.
Pitching coach Scott Forbes said facing a pitcher as talented as Rodon in Omaha is inevitable.
Forbes said though UNC’s starting pitchers haven’t pitched their best lately, he trusts his pitching staff.
“One of the reasons we’ve been able to win so many games — 57 — is because of our starting pitching,” Forbes said. “They haven’t been great maybe the last few weeks, but they’re the reason we’re here.”
Emanuel, the ACC pitcher of the year with a 2.93 ERA, will be ready to throw some flames of his own Sunday in another pitchers’ duel.
And Frank said he’s not afraid of another long fight.
“We’ll probably take it to 18 again just for a little fun,” Frank said. “It’s going to be a battle.”
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