Reversal of Fortune

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Just two weeks ago, No. 2 North Carolina was entering the ACC Tournament with questions surrounding its starting pitching staff, not its bullpen. But as the Tar Heels prepare for this weekend's Super Regional, those concerns have reversed course in dramatic fashion.

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Heading into the postseason, the UNC bullpen sported a 17-3 record, 1.79 ERA and eight saves against just one blown save. Twelve of the 15 pitchers to work in relief owned ERAs south of 3.00, and the bullpen collectively struck out 289 batters while walking 104 in 246 2/3 innings on the season.

Conversely, starters Alex White, Adam Warren and Matt Harvey combined to post just two victories over the Tar Heels' final three weekend ACC series – all against nationally-ranked opponents. In those nine starts, the trio also combined to pitch six innings only once and five innings only three times.

Fast forward two weeks, and you get a completely different picture.

The triumvirate of starters has combined to allow just six earned runs and record 44 strikeouts in 37 innings during all six postseason outings, including a complete game gem by White against UNC Wilmington on Saturday night (one earned run, eight strikeouts).

"Each one of them the last two starts… They've been about as good as they've been all year long," head coach Mike Fox said during this past weekend's Cary Regional. "I think that's consistency with their work. Staying hungry between their starts and doing all of their work and Coach [Scott] Forbes has been working with them. I think a lot of it is about throwing strikes… That is a good sign for us that our starters have been pitching well."

The bullpen has paled in comparison to their counterparts' success on the mound during that same timeframe. In five postseason outings, the Carolina relievers have combined to allow 20 earned runs while recording 21 strikeouts and 12 walks in 19 innings of work with two blown save opportunities.

"We've done it all year long," senior closer Rob Wooten said about the postseason struggles during Tuesday's media session. "It didn't worry us one bit. We know we're going to go out there and give it our best shot, and nine out of ten times we're going to do good. You can't go out there every time and be perfect – just like a hitter. It's a game of failure. It's a very frustrating game, and yes, we're frustrated as a bullpen, but I think we're now on the right track and ready to go forward."

Wooten's comments sound eerily familiar to his head coach's thoughts, who is adamant that his relievers are not a concern for him or his coaching staff.

"We've got great confidence in our bullpen," Fox said. "Despite what everybody wants to say, we've got guys that can come in and throw strikes and you saw it on [Sunday]. We won three games, and that's all we care about."

But there's no denying the fact that while all three starters' ERAs have fallen during the postseason, five prominent members of the bullpen have watched their ERA increase significantly. Even so, Fox believes the recent stumble will ground his relief unit and have them prepared for this weekend's action.

"I think maybe experiencing a little bit of not having success in the bullpen maybe fueled those guys into thinking, 'You know, this was coming – we'll manage it and get back at it in the Super Regionals,'" Fox said on Tuesday.

There is no reason to doubt that approach – after all, the Tar Heels (49-12) are expected to remain as nation's top pitching team in terms of ERA (2.76), strikeouts per nine innings (10.2) and hits allowed per nine innings (7.45), when the NCAA releases its weekly stats later this week.

One thing is for certain – with Coastal Carolina arriving at the USA Baseball Complex on Saturday for a noon start, the entire North Carolina pitching staff is going to have to be at its best to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. next weekend. The Chanticleers (50-12) enter the series having scored 56 runs in their last four games.


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