Mound of Struggles

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - It was a quick 1-2-3 the first weekend in April as North Carolina swept Clemson to improve to 26-4 and 10-2 in the ACC. Tack on a road series win against Florida State the following weekend and the No. 5 Tar Heels (30-5, 12-3 ACC) were off to their best start since 1983.

Not all was fine and dandy. Carolina Blue skies soon turned gray, as the pitching went south. North Carolina was 10-6 in April, while also dropping two of its last three conference series. In those losses the Tar Heels gave up an average of 7.6 runs per game, and allowed four in their wins.

No one noticed the signs initially. No. 14 Tar Heels (33-10, 13-8 ACC) had another series sweep, but this time they were on the losing end and it was to rival N.C. State (18-15 going into the series).

In the first loss to the Wolfpack on Apr. 15, starting pitcher Patrick Johnson gave up five hits and five runs in less than five innings. It was his first loss of the season. Following the game a reporter asked the senior from Conover, N.C., what he was doing wrong and if he knew how to fix it. Johnson said, "I don't know, but if you do please tell me."

That same night UNC head coach Mike Fox said Johnson is a pitcher who lives on the edge, causing him to often fall behind 3-1 in the count.

Johnson was not the only one struggling. In game two of the Florida State series, starter Kent Emanuel only lasted a little over three innings, giving up 10 hits and five runs. Chris Munnelly also struggled in Tallahassee, only lasting 15 pitches before going to the dugout to watch the last innings of game three.

North Carolina is currently in fourth place in the ACC's Coastal Division, behind Miami (28-14, 15-6 ACC), Georgia Tech (31-13, 18-5 ACC) and division leader Virginia (41-5, 19-4 ACC).

Aside from wins and losses, the main factor that separates Carolina from the top three is quality pitching from its starters.

The lack of fresh bodies is not a problem, because North Carolina has them, as evidenced by eight different pitchers with a start under their belt. It is simply an issue of quality performers, because after Emanuel (2.58 ERA, 7-1 record) and Johnson (3.45 ERA, 7-1 record), the next best choice with the most experience is Munnelly (4.04 ERA, 3-3 record). Greg Holt (2.72 ERA, 6-0 record) anchors the relievers to give the Tar Heels a solid, but still lacking corps of pitchers.

In the first 35 games, Carolina's starters averaged 81.4 pitches in four and half innings. Over the last eight games they averaged 81.3 pitches in 4.3 innings per game, so the trend has not really changed.

Since the first weekend in April, Georgia Tech is getting just under a 100 pitches in six innings from its starting pitchers, and first place Virginia uses almost two fewer pitchers per game than North Carolina.

"It's been tough," Holt said. "Our goal from here on out is to try get guys out within four pitches."

Against Miami last weekend, the Tar Heels only pitched eight players to the Hurricanes 10 and threw four more strikeouts than the Hurricanes, but UNC also gave up 18 runs, 25 hits and 13 walks in the first two games.

North Carolina may be showing some signs of life in this category. Though losing last weekend's series to Miami, UNC has reason to be optimistic as freshman hurler Emanuel held the Hurricanes to just one run, leading the Tar Heels to an 8-1 win and stopping their five-game skid in conference play.

"I definitely think we're going to come back, and get another winning streak going," Emanuel said. "I think it's just one of those things where you just have that rough patch in the year. I've focused on the same stuff. This past weekend I was able to execute it a little bit better."

UNC followed its win over Miami with a 5-4 victory over East Carolina to sweep the home-and-home series against its in-state rival.

Unlike Emanuel, Johnson has had to make some tweaks, but a little coaching and practice can go a long way. Assistant coach Robert Woodard has played a big role in helping Johnson improve his form.

Johnson struggled with location and consistency against N.C. State. To remedy these problems, Woodard has told Johnson to keep his head still and his abs tight, making his core stronger and keeping him in line, resulting in better pitches. Johnson threw seven strikeouts in just over five innings in UNC's game two loss to Miami.

"I felt like I got back against Miami," Johnson said. "My goal the rest of the year is to stay consistent and to locate my pitches, and I think I'll be alright."

The Diamond Heels have four in-state non-conference games left on the docket to go along with three ACC series still to be played, with matchups against Georgia Tech and Virginia looming large. Emanuel, Johnson and Holt will need to continue their strong play, but they will also need the rest of the pitching committee to rise to the occasion or it will again be a mound of struggles.

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