Closing on a High Note

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - No. 6 North Carolina is riding high coming off last weekend's series sweep against then-No. 1 Virginia, but if it was not for closer Michael Morin, the Tar Heels might have had some work to do this weekend in the ACC Tournament to secure a regional host.

As Morin did in Tallahassee against the Seminoles in early April, he closed the last two games and the door on the Cavaliers. In the third and final game, he swept away the final two batters and the series.

"It's kind of an out of body experience almost," Morin said. "Down in Tallahassee against Florida State, that's going to be one to remember, but this one in front of our home crowd against UVa, the No. 1 team, to be able to do that is special."

UNC catcher Jacob Stallings laughs when he looks back to last season and remembers when Morin told him he played shortstop in high school. Stallings said Morin is one of the worst fielding pitchers on UNC's roster, which is something he teases the sophomore about.

But ask Stallings what he thinks about Morin as a closer and the laughter stops.

"He's got the perfect mentality for a closer," Stallings said. "He's tough. He's aggressive. He wants to win more than anybody there, so that really helps us. He's really locked in all the time. I think that's what you need in a closer is a tough guy who's not afraid to go out there and get the last three outs."

Morin is confident and has the needed toughness, but the Leawood, Kan. sophomore had to overcome some obstacles this season. Morin began the season as a weekend starter, but a bad performance against Southern California on Feb. 20, giving up eight hits and seven runs in 5.2 innings, and an ankle injury suffered at Virginia Tech, forced him into relief duty.

"It's been an uphill battle the whole season just trying to be consistent," Morin said.

The 6-foot-4 Morin has also experienced adversity as a reliever. In the first game of the Florida State series he only lasted 15 pitches, allowing two hits and three runs.

He rebounded to the final two games, throwing five strikeouts in three innings to help North Carolina clinch the series, and has since been the Heels' top closer.

"We've always had confidence in Michael," UNC head coach Mike Fox said. "He got hurt, and it put him behind a little bit. His statistics are kind of skewed if you look at the number of hits he's given up, and his ERA, but if you take out of there where things just didn't go well for him he's been really good for us down the stretch. That's who you want in there at the end of the game."

Those skewed stats Fox is referring to for Morin are 59 hits and 32 earned runs in 56 innings pitched this season, giving him an alarming 5.14 ERA. However, the second-year pitcher sports a 4-2 record and eight saves. He has also thrown 61 strikeouts to 17 walks.

But he doesn't pay attention to the stats. Morin just wants to help his team win.

"It's been tough, but it's been a lot of fun," Morin said. "We've had a great season. Personally, maybe I haven't had that great of a year, but it doesn't really matter. We've won (44) games ... If closing is my thing, and it's what we need to do to win, that's what I'll do. It doesn't really matter to me."

The Diamond Heels improved to 44-12 and 20-10 in the ACC after its series sweep of Virginia, and when Morin pitched he toed the mound in style.

Instead of normal baseball cleats, Morin wears Kobe Bryant basketball shoes with metal spikes molded into the bottoms. The Kansan reps his flashy kicks with pride, and he is not the only fashion trend-setter for the Tar Heels.

"Cody Penny and I were just messing around on Nike ID, and made these shoes," Morin said. "Levi [Michael] has a pair of Jordans that he sent in to a company. You just ship them off to Custom Cleats, and they put them on there. They're pretty neat, and unique."

Though he enjoyed his shoe creation, Morin is locked in on the mound. Fox said Morin is aggressive, and that he fearlessly attacks batters. The sophomore has his jaw set for the postseason.

"We're riding high right now, but we learned that from the Florida State series," Morin said. "We had a letdown after that, and don't want to press, but continue to put the foot on the pedal. Coach Fox said we were about to do something special [against Virginia], and we did. We're here, and we're ready to take on anybody."

The fourth-seeded Tar Heels open postseason play against the fifth-seeded Miami Hurricanes on Thursday at 11 a.m. in the ACC Tournament.

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