Munnelly Mows Down Bulldogs

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - No. 12 North Carolina (34-10, 13-8 ACC) exploded in the seventh inning with seven runs, but the Tar Heels' success against Gardner-Webb started on the mound.

Enter Chris Munnelly. The sophomore pitcher from Winston-Salem, N.C. entered the game with a 4.04 ERA, and had battled a stress reaction in his ribs earlier this season, but in the first inning he appeared to be past all that. Munnelly knew it was going to be a good day after he struck out the game's first batter, Gardner-Webb's Benji Jackson.

"The whole rib thing was definitely a little bit of a setback," Munnelly said. "It motivated me just to work a little bit harder, and improve in every one of my little drawbacks. It always feels good when you get the first guy out. My goal is to get the first guy out in every inning. It sets the tone for the inning."

It did more than set the tone for the inning, as the Tar Heels had a shutout going until eighth when Daniel Merck hit an RBI-single, scoring Aaron Miller to put Gardner-Webb on the board.

This was no small task, as everyone in the Runnin' Bulldogs' batting order has at least a .299 batting average or better, with the best being first basemen Dusty Quattlebaum, who reps a .366.

In 5.1 innings Munnelly threw 67 pitches, recording five strikeouts and giving up just four hits.

UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said the goal for all pitchers is to get every hitter out in just four pitches by pushing the fastball and finding an off-speed pitch that works.

For Munnelly, that off-speed pitch was his breaking curve ball that Bulldog batters struggled to hit.

"Munnelly has always been one of our best pitchers," Forbes said. "He got off to a little bit of a slow start. I'm not making excuses for him, but I think when he had a stress reaction in his ribs it set him back a little bit. We've been trying to get him back out there, and tonight he was able to command the ball. That's what he's best at. He's a control pitcher."

The 6-foot-2 sophomore could have gone longer, but UNC needed him to be fresh to start on Sunday. It was pitcher-by-committee the rest of the game, as eight hurlers toed the mound for the Tar Heels before the game's final out.

Andrew Smith replaced Tate Parrish at the top of the seventh, and was the only pitcher other than Munnelly to throw a full inning. The 6-foot-2 freshman from Roswell, Ga. threw two strikeouts and allowed just one run on no hits.

"If you look at our whole season we really have had just one bad week on the mound, and that was ECU and into the [N.C.] State series," Forbes said. "We didn't have a starter go more than four innings. When you do that it puts a lot of stress on your bullpen. Our bullpen has been really good, but when you tax them like that they get really tired."

With the end of the regular season drawing near the opportunities to get young backup pitchers game experience are few, and weeknight games against in-state mid-majors are usually their best chance to get in.

The Tar Heels victory over Gardner-Webb is the third straight game they have had a strong performance from the mound, starting with Kent Emanuel's iron man, nine-inning effort in North Carolina's 8-1 win over Miami.

Munnelly's performance against the Runnin' Bulldogs should be comforting as the Tar Heels get back into conference play this weekend against Maryland.

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