Armed for a Run

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's baseball program has become known for developing and churning out quality pitchers. The 2012 group could possibly go down as the best in Mike Fox's remarkable tenure.

At the end of April, catcher Jacob Stallings told reporters that after having to lean on two pitchers in 2011 – starters Patrick Johnson and Kent Emanuel – the Tar Heels now had the luxury of five pitchers to call on, if needed.

On Thursday, Stallings clarified that comment to make sure everyone understood that he was only talking about the starting rotation.

"That doesn't include the 10 guys we've got coming out of the bullpen," Stallings said. "We've just got tremendous depth."

Indeed. After tossing a pair of shutouts in the ACC Tournament – including one on a staff day – North Carolina's team ERA is down to 2.54 on the season. That mark ranks third nationally and currently stands as the fourth-lowest in school history.

The Tar Heels have allowed 20 earned runs over their last 16 games, good for a 1.22 ERA. During that stretch, UNC posted five shutouts and allowed just one run in five other games.

Emanuel (8-4, 2.03) and junior Michael Morin serve as the literal bookends for this pitching staff. The latter earned first-team Louisville Slugger All-America honors on Thursday while the former notched third-team recognition.

Morin is 6-3 on the season with a 0.83 ERA and 17 saves in 34 appearances. He's a closer by trade, although he's proven in recent weeks that he's capable of working lengthy stretches on the mound. Against N.C. State on Saturday night, the Leawood, Kan. native gave up a single to the first batter he faced and then proceeded to retire 14 straight batters in five innings of work.

The starting pitchers that UNC has rolled out since this CWS run started in 2006 – Andrew Miller, Daniel Bard, Alex White, Robert Woodard and Matt Harvey to name a few – all possess name recognition in the college baseball landscape and beyond. None of those hurlers, however, had NCAA postseason records approaching what Emanuel has accomplished thus far.

The Woodstock, Ga. product is 3-0 in NCAA Tournament play with a 0.39 ERA, 15 strikeouts and three walks in 23.0 innings pitched.

"Obviously, when the stakes are raised, it's a little different, it's a little more intense," Emanuel said of his postseason prowess. "That's something I really strive on. But at the same time, working all year you set yourself up so that your best play is at the end of the year."

The statistic that's likely to cause sticker shock in forthcoming opponents is that while Emanuel is considered the staff ace, his ERA is the highest of UNC's starting rotation. Freshman Benton Moss is 6-2 with a 1.97 ERA and sophomore Hobbs Johnson is 6-1 with a 1.37 ERA.

Johnson will make his first career postseason start on Friday against Cornell after nearly falling off the proverbial cliff last year and losing his spot on the roster, according to Fox.

"He can control four pitches," Stallings said of Johnson. "He's a fastball, a curveball, a slider and a change-up that we feel very comfortable throwing whenever we think we should throw. It's a huge advantage to have three quality pitches in college and he's got four."

On Thursday, Fox provided his thoughts on where this staff ranks historically within his program.

"I think it ranks right up there just because of what they've been able to do over the course of a lot of games," the 14-year UNC head coach said. "We've been pretty consistent. Everybody's played a role and some guys have continued to step up.

"It's a very competitive pitching staff, so I think our young guys learn pretty early if you don't work and really concentrate in the bullpen and when we have live B.P. and those sorts of things, there's somebody else that's going to climb over you. Competition, as far as coaches go, is our most powerful motivator. They've all settled into their role and understand that just throwing five pitches in a game will help us win and that's the bottom line."

The list of quality pitchers on this staff is lengthy. There's reliever R.C. Orlan, who is 8-1 with a 2.01 ERA in 36 appearances, as well as Shane Taylor (5-0, 2.75) and Chris McCue (1-0, 2.19 ERA).

The benefits, especially in postseason play, are substantial. A loss on Friday or Saturday puts a team in the unenviable position of having to win three games on Sunday and Monday – five total – to advance to Super Regional play next weekend.

North Carolina's depth on the mound alleviates the normal concern that afflicts most programs that worry about running out of dependable arms.

Considering that UNC is 15-0 at home in regional play since 2006, those concerns may be unwarranted anyway.

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