By: Michael Lemaire
The college baseball season hasn’t even reach its halfway point yet, but losing 2-0 in the top of the fourth inning of its rubber match with Maryland, North Carolina looked lifeless. So pitching coach Scott Forbes took matters into his own hands and showed both teams and the 557 fans in attendance, just how much yesterday’s game meant to the Tar Heels.
Upset with home plate umpire Phillip Talent’s rather generous strike zone, Forbes started hollering at Talent from the first base coaching box after shortstop Ryan Graepel struck out looking on an outside pitch for the second out. Talent remained nonplussed. Unfazed, Forbes decided to make first base umpire Raymond Green the target of his ire. Green wasted no time tossing Forbes, and the Tar Heels’ pitching coach was escorted from the field. But not before both he and head coach Mike Fox gave all three umpires their two cents.
The ejection certainly stirred something or someone in the UNC dugout, and the offense finally came alive, slowly.
The Tar Heels rallied for an 8-4 win thanks, in part, to a run-saving play from third baseman Levi Michael in the bottom of the eighth and four runs of their own in the top of the ninth. The win allowed North Carolina to escape College Park, Md. with a series victory despite the fact the Terps outplayed the Tar Heels for the first seven innings.
The Tar Heels players were all smiles walking to their bus, but the Terps are not a very good baseball team, and they gave the Tar Heels all they could handle this weekend at Shipley Field, and not even a come-from-behind win to clinch the series can sugarcoat that fact.
This is not the same North Carolina team college baseball fans are used to that much is clear. Whether that means they may end up on the outside looking in when the Regionals are announced remains to be seen.
No college baseball team is immune to the year-to-year roster fluctations that stem from graduation and the draft among other things. And everybody knew the Tar Heels were going to take a step backwards this season after losing seven key players to the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft, including the team’ss top two pitchers (Alex White and Adam Warren) and one of the best hitters in college baseball history (Dustin Ackley).
But while the Tar Heels are a respectable 20-10 overall this season. They are still just 4-8 in the ACC after this weekend, and all is not right in Chapel Hill. If UNC doesn’t kick it into high-gear sometime soon, a Regional berth may not be the foregone conclusion Tar Heels’ fans have grown accustomed to.
The good news is the season is still young, and so are the Tar Heels.
16 Tar Heels found their way into the box score in some fashion yesterday. Seven were newcomers; five position players (three freshmen and two JuCo) and two freshmen pitchers. Five more players are underclassmen, and of that group, only Michael was a regular starter last season.
Let’s get one thing straight, this still is North Carolina, so the aforementioned newcomers have plenty of talent, and are capable of becoming valuable ACC players before the season is over.
But until that happens there are going to be some frustrating growing pains, and Coach Fox is going to have to be patient, or hope for some luck, or both.
Freshman outfielder Brian Goodwin is a five-tool player and torched the Terps with the bat this weekend, finishing 6-14 with eight RBI. But he also struck out three times yesterday in key
situations and has been an adventure in the outfield all season, including this weekend. Tommy Coyle and Dillon Hazlett have been solid at the dish, but they are also streaky and have yet to prove themselves in conference play.
On the mound fellow freshman reliever Chris Munnelly has live stuff and Fox has given him every chance to become the regular set-up man, but Munnelly continues to struggle with his command. Michael Morin was the team’s de facto closer this weekend in his first season and he has plenty of promise and ability, but to rely on him to save close games when the situation is slightly more pressurized might be asking too much.
Fox has said plenty about using the team’s speed as a weapon, but the Tar Heels really haven’t run very often this season. Second baseman Coyle leads the team in steals with 10, and Michael has nine, but for a team with above-average speed at a number of different positions, Fox has been content to move his runners along the more traditional way, at least so far.
The problem this year is that, for the station-to-station offense to be effective, teams need to have sluggers in the middle of its lineups.
The Tar Heels don’t have that this season.
This is what happens when you lose players like Ackley and Kyle Seager and Mark Fleury. And the power vaccuum they created is catching up to the Tar Heels.
Junior college transfer Jesse Wierzbicki leads the team in home runs (7) and slugging percentage (.657) and has filled some of that void. But North Carolina had hoped to lean on Michael and groom him into a consistent power threat and all-around star. But after leaving high school early to tear it up as a freshman in Carolina Blue, Michael hasn’t quite found his stroke yet this season.
His on-base percentage when play started yesterday was .473, so he is still having good at-bats. But after 11 home runs as a freshman, Michael hit his first home run of this season on Friday night and then became an after-thought offensively as the series progressed. The most likely threats to go deep after Wierzbicki and Michael are probably Goodwin (4 HR) and Hazlett (3 HR), but neither has developed into a consistent slugging threat.
But the real reason why the Tar Heels are struggling so badly is that, after top two starters Matt Harvey and Patrick Johnson, the pitching staff has been a mess. The final spot in the rotation is still up for grabs and no one has carved out any semblance of a regular role in the bullpen.
A preseason third-team All-American as a reliever, Colin Bates only moved back into that role this weekend. He entered the game in the bottom of the ninth on Friday, and served up the walk-off home run in the tenth inning.Then he pitched four innings of relief yesterday, giving up seven hits but just one run after his replacement in the rotation, sophomore Jimmy Messer, lasted just one inning.
There are plenty of reasons why North Carolina makes an annual run to Omaha, Neb. and the College World Series, but one of the bigger ones has been reliable relievers who can be trusted to effectively bridge the gap between the starters and the closer.
This season the Tar Heels don’t even have an established closer.
Pitchers like Nate Striz and Greg Holt were expected to step in and help fill those roles, but both both have been lit up this season, to the point where Fox has been forced to turn to freshmen in key situations.
For now, Fox is relying on a combination of Munnelly and Morin as the primary righthanders and the only two lefthanders on staff, R.C. Orlan and Zach Bernard, are also freshmen. They have been solid in limited opportunities, but there are plenty of questions surrounding their ability to hold up over the course of a season, especially in the brutal ACC.
Friday night’s gut-wrenching loss was the sixth conference game where the Tar Heels had led after seven innings only to give it back up to their opponents in the final two frames, that is not something that bodes particularly well for future success, especially in the postseason.
It’s hard to imagine Regionals without Chapel Hill as one of the host sites, let alone one that excludes the Tar Heels all together, but the Tar Heels have only won one conference series thus far, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier.
The Tar Heels began the season as one of the top 15 teams in the country, but while their slide down the ranking has been gradual, it is a slip nonetheless. While some still have North Carolina in their top 25 and Regionals projections based on reputation alone, the Tar Heels have fallen out of most pundits’ top 25 even before this weekend.
Worrying about the Regionals seems silly, especially with so much baseball left to be played. But 4-8 in the conference is still only good enough for a tie for the eighth final ACC Tournament spot with Boston College.
And until their spot in the ACC Tournament and NCAA Regionals is a little bit cozier. North Carolina will be treating each game like its already Omaha — as Scott Forbes so generously demonstrated with his outburst yesterday.
Michael Lemaire is a contributor to The College Baseball Blog and is the beat writer for the Maryland baseball program with The Diamondback. He can be contacted by clicking here.