Nightmares in the Batter's Box

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When last weekend's Super Regional was touted as North Carolina's pitching versus East Carolina's hitting, Mike Fox probably chuckled to himself. After all, the UNC head coach knows better than most that in baseball, pitching reigns supreme.

In basketball and football, it's widely known that defense wins championships. In golf, you drive for show and putt for dough. And while chicks may dig the long ball, it's the hurler on the mound that will likely determine a baseball game's outcome.

The Pirates provided a pristine example in Chapel Hill last weekend, entering the series with the most hits (794) in the country while ranking fourth in runs (561) and seventh in home runs (107). East Carolina exited Boshamer Stadium on Sunday afternoon after only adding four runs to those totals and hitting .271 over the 18 innings.

The statistics surrounding the College World Series supplies even more concrete evidence, as six of the eight participating programs rank in the top-10 nationally in team ERA, including the top five in Texas, Arizona State, Virginia, Cal State Fullerton and UNC. Conversely, the Titans will boast the highest batting average (.330) in Omaha – good for 26th nationally.

When asked on Wednesday if those numbers answered the question as to whether pitching or hitting was most important in baseball, Fox replied, "I think so."

"That's something that we've known for a while here, certainly the last four or five years, that if you don't have pitching at this level, it's hard to win consistently and win against the really good teams," he said. "I think that's why we've focused so much on pitching here. The hitters on this level, with the aluminum bats and their strength, they're all pretty good, so if you don't have an arm to match, you have trouble."

Fox has deployed top-notch talent to the mound ever since current Major Leaguers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard arrived in Chapel Hill for the 2004 season. This year is no different with No. 15 overall pick Alex White (8-4, 4.13 ERA) and fourth-rounder Adam Warren (9-2, 3.23 ERA).

But the Tar Heels may face an even better option on Sunday against Arizona State – No. 8 overall pick Mike Leake (16-1, 1.36 ERA). While Sun Devils head coach Pat Murphy has yet to officially name his Game 1 starter, it's difficult to imagine Leake not getting the nod, especially considering his arsenal that includes a low-90s fastball, curve ball, slider and a low-80s changeup for good measure.

"You don't see many college pitchers that throw four pitches like he does that are all well above-average pitches and just command the strike zone like he does," Fox said.

There's no question the 6-foot, 180-pound righty demands his opposition's respect.

"This kid is obviously very talented, so we have to be aggressive and we have to go right at him," UNC third baseman Kyle Seager said. "But we still have to stay within ourselves. We're not necessarily a big power team, so we kind of have to do our small ball. We have to get guys moving, get guys running, we have to bunt – we've got to do a lot of things."

The Tar Heels and Sun Devils mirror each other offensively, with each program showcasing two batting stalwarts – Dustin Ackley (.412, 22 HR, 70 RBI) and Seager (.386, 5 HR, 59 RBI) for UNC, Jason Kipnis (.385, 16 HR, 71 RBI) and Carlos Ramirez (.349, 18 HR, 72 RBI) for ASU – and a handful of role players.

Runs will be at a premium with two top-15 draft choices trotting out to the mound in alternating innings, a fact not lost on North Carolina's ace.

"I've got to be able to pitch well to help us [win]," White said. "We've got a great group of guys, great group of pitchers, and I've got be able to pitch well to help those guys."

The benefit of being teammates with a pitcher like White or Leake is that you get to hit against those individuals during the offseason, so instead of intimidation soaking the batter's box, these hitters may just experience an odd case of déjà vu.

"It's going to be like facing another Alex up there," Seager replied when asked about stepping to the plate with Leake 60.5 feet away.

Fox has built his program with solid pitching, and if he wants to avoid an early trip to the loser's bracket in Omaha, he's going to need to figure out a way to exploit a pitcher up to his standards.

Inside Carolina Top Stories