OMAHA, Neb. — North Carolina baseball used a College World Series record eight pitchers in its 8-1 loss to N.C. State on Sunday and also inserted two pinch hitters in the eighth inning and one in the ninth to avoid the shutout.
But the decision to have so many arms and batters contribute was made before ace Kent Emanuel began to struggle and UNC’s batters lost battles to Wolfpack southpaw Carlos Rodon.
“That was all by design, to try to get some guys in the game, get their feet wet,” coach Mike Fox said Sunday. “So that was actually good (that) we were able to do that, I think.”
For all but three of the UNC pitchers who threw on Sunday — Chris McCue, Trevor Kelley, Reilly Hovis, Taylore Cherry and Mason McCullough — the opportunity to throw in TD Ameritrade Park was the first.
But the pitching staff’s approach didn’t change despite taking the mound on a national stage.
“It was very exciting, a different atmosphere than we’re used to,” McCullough said. “But you just want to stick to what you’ve done all year.”
Being at its best means the pitching staff sticking to its one-pitch-at-a-time mantra, a feat McCullough says is a “little bit harder to do,” under College World Series pressure, but the opportunity to feel that pressure in the earliest possible game is something the sophomore hopes will be an advantage later in the series.
“I mean it is hype — I can’t say it’s not because this is what we’ve worked all year for and we’re finally here — but everybody wants to be at their best,” he said.
For freshmen pinch hitters Grayson Atwood and Alex Raburn, the first swing in a College World Series game meant fulfillment of lifelong dreams, but the environment itself didn’t outweigh the goal of the appearance.
“It was an awesome experience, coming out and being in front of the crowd in that kind of atmosphere,” Atwood said. “It’s like a once in a lifetime opportunity, but I don’t really know if it affected us too much, we just went with the same approach, just tried not to think about everything — the crowd and the atmosphere and everything.”
Atwood’s at-bat was his 23rd and his first since the Duke series in March and Raburn’s was his first time back at the plate since the last time North Carolina faced N.C. State in the ACC tournament last month.
Korey Dunbar also pinch hit for North Carolina for his first Omaha appearance.
But the opportunity came shortly after the freshman’s last appearance in the Super Regional against South Carolina, as Dunbar has been used more in recent games to relieve Brian Holberton from the catcher’s position after Matt Roberts broke his hand against Florida Atlantic in the Chapel Hill Regional.
For Raburn in particular, the at-bat in a legendary but unfamiliar ballpark was made even more special by the opportunity to go up against a rival’s best pitcher, who’s one of the toughest the Tar Heels have faced all season.
“I faced DJ Thomas in the tournament,” he said, acknowledging that he gets the call to swing against left handers. “It was the first time I faced Rodon … he’s got unbelievable stuff … so it was fun to get in there.”
Whether first-time CWS appearances were made more memorable because of opponents or the venue and atmosphere alone, the decision to give so many Tar Heels the chance to play in the high-stakes game was one that should provide benefits if North Carolina makes the tournament run it aspires to.
“For us to reach our goal and play to the end of the tournament, we’re going to need everyone,” McCullough said. “So it helps that a lot of guys got (in) and that when you have to rely on somebody else (in another game), they’ve already been in that position here.”
At least one more of UNC’s freshmen and bullpen members will make his debut in the College World Series as Trent Thornton starts Tuesday for the first time since March 27.
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