The Pitching Puzzle

OMAHA, Neb. – A typical game of baseball is full of strategic moves and questionable decisions across the board. Combine those aspects with a double-elimination format such as the College World Series, and the possibilities become endless – which is why North Carolina's pitching staff is well-positioned for a deep run in Omaha.




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The Tar Heels will trot Matt Harvey (7-2, 5.35 ERA) out to the mound against Arizona State on Thursday night, likely to face the Sun Devil's No. 3 starter in righty Seth Blair (7-2, 3.39 ERA). UNC's sophomore has not pitched since a 6.1-inning, two-run showing against Dartmouth on May 29, while the Sun Devils' sophomore threw 10 pitches in the loss to Texas on Tuesday night.

"I feel like I've been throwing the ball real well," said Harvey on Wednesday, who indicated that his fastball topped 98 mph during an intersquad event earlier this week. "Not quite to where I would like to be, but I feel like it's been coming back. The ball's been jumping out of my hand pretty good, like I'm used to. I was able to come around and throw more strikes where I had gotten into a little mechanical issue and was having some trouble there, so I feel very confident going into [Thursday]."

Harvey's not the only one feeling confident, as this Tar Heel pitching staff is well-rested and in prime position to make a move over the next three outings to survive the losers' bracket and land in the championship series for the third time in four seasons.

Thanks to clutch performances by starters Alex White and Adam Warren in UNC's first two games in Omaha, the Tar Heel bullpen has only been called on to throw 69 total pitches. Compare that with Texas (173) and Arizona State (150), and it's easy to see why North Carolina pitching coach Scott Forbes is in good spirits.

"It's kind of weird being in the losers' bracket and feeling like you're in good shape pitching, because that's usually not the case, but you feel like you are," Forbes told Inside Carolina on Wednesday. "… Texas is only going to have two days of rest and they've pitched a boatload of guys, so if we can get to Texas, I think we'll be in as good of shape as they are. But we've got to beat Arizona State first, and that's a pretty big task."

Where things get interesting is in the chess match that could develop over the next week. North Carolina could possibly play six games in seven days, but also could lose to Arizona State on Thursday and be back in Chapel Hill early Friday morning. Do you try to maximize the outings by stalwarts like White and Warren, or do you trust the lesser-known options in your bullpen to pitch your squad to victory?

For the UNC coaching staff, four years of experience in Omaha has paid dividends with those types of decisions.

"We've been out here enough now to know that you have to go game-by-game," Forbes said. "If you've got a chance to win the game in the sixth inning and your best pitcher is available, you use him to get to the next day."

The Tar Heel hurlers are prepared to return to the mound in Omaha with a day or two shorter rest than they would normally see during the season, but Forbes has never been a proponent of arm abuse. Throwing off two days of rest is simply not an option.

"We take a lot of pride in taking care of our pitchers' arms, so we haven't overthrown our guys and they can come back off four days rest," the fourth-year UNC assistant coach said.

The ideal result for UNC on Thursday is for Harvey to throw seven strong innings and the relievers to close the game out. Assuming that or something similar occurs, where do the Tar Heels turn next?

While Forbes is quick to point out that Colin Bates and Brian Moran "are not just relievers," the conversation keeps trending back to sophomore righty Patrick Johnson (2-2, 2.88 ERA).

"We feel like Patrick is a guy that would be in almost any team's weekend rotation," Forbes said.

Clearly nothing is definite at this point in time, but if Thursday goes according to plan, Johnson is the likely candidate to start Friday's game against No. 1 seed Texas. And while White would be on a strict pitch count with just four days of rest, Forbes admits that he likes the option of having his ace work out of the bullpen behind Johnson.

And if the Conover, N.C. native delivers a Big League performance against the Longhorns and saves White from having to throw, Cleveland's No. 15 overall pick could potentially serve as the starter on Saturday. If not, the Tar Heels would encounter a situation similar to last season's finale against Fresno State, in which seven different pitchers took the mound in small doses.

"If you get to that point that late, you just kind of piece it together – piece by piece, inning by inning," Forbes said. "I think this staff is a little bit different. I think we're a little bit deeper with that swing man, with Patrick. Last year, we didn't have that true fourth starter that we felt like could go out there and give you seven innings."

And since we're playing the "What if?" game here, if North Carolina somehow works its way out of the losers' bracket, Warren would be ready for Game 1 of the championship series on five days rest and Harvey could start Game 2 on four days rest.

Sounds like the perfect plan, but that could all change with one swing of the bat.

"For all we know, [Thursday's game] could go 20 innings and that would change your depth quickly," Forbes said, smiling. "So we'll just play it by ear."

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