The Tar Heels (45-14) are a very quiet number 3 overall seed. With much of the national attention swinging toward Virginia and Vanderbilt, North Carolina is making its 26th NCAA appearance, and come into Regionals as one of the top eight seeds for the fourth time in five seasons.
North Carolina will trot out freshman LHP Kent Emanuel against Maine on Friday evening. Emanuel is 6-1 so far this season, with 74 strike outs and a 2.88 ERA. Tar Heels coach Mike Fox has only started one other freshmen pitcher in his tenure in Chapel Hill – Matt Harvey in 2008, who is now in the Mets system. If the Tar Heels advance against Maine, they are likely to start senior RHP Patrick Johnson in their next game of the weekend. Johnson is making his way into the program’s record books. He has 11 wins on the season, 23 wins in his career, both putting him among the top ten all time for wins by North Carolina pitchers. Johnson had a 0.63 ERA in May with 35 strikeouts, with 102 all season.
Watch first baseman Jess Wierzbicki at the bat this weekend. He had five runs in last weekend’s ACC tournament, earning him All-Tournament Team honors. He has 38 RBI and 44 runs. Second baseman Tommy Coyle leads the Tar Heels with 52 runs so far this season, and is on a ten game hitting streak going into Friday’s game.
20-1-1 in their last 22 games, second seeded Florida International (40-18-1) looks to play one of the best games of regional weekend against James Madison. Florida International has an offense beyond the talented Garrett Wittels, as they’ve shown this season. Junior outfielder and SunBelt conference Player of the Year Pablo Bermudez has 62 runs scored, and is hitting .373. Junior Jeremy Patton has 53 RBIs, was named to the SunBelt First Team, and went 3 for 3 in the Panthers tournament game against South Alabama last weekend.
Of course, Wittels is still in the mix – he has scored game winning home runs two games in the past two weeks, including one in a Sun Belt tournament game against Arkansas State.
R.J. Fondon is the team’s best starting pitcher, and has a 2.76 ERA. He made the SunBelt Conference All-Tournament Team after a complete game shutout last week against South Alabama.
On a nation’s best nine game winning streak, CAA champion and third seeded James Madison (40-17) will look to advance past Florida International on Friday afternoon. With a pitching staff that is getting hot at just the right time, the Dukes have a combined 3.22 ERA in their past 15 games.
What has been there all season for the Dukes has been one of the nation’s best offenses. James Madison has been on the national leader board for multiple offensive categories, including first in slugging percentage with a .527. Much of their success has been chalked up to CAA Player of the Year Jake Lowery, who has 22 home runs and 83 RBI. Lowery is rewriting the record books for the Dukes in many statistical categories, including 8 triples this season and 187 bases. Left fielder Johnny Bledel has 40 RBI, including four last weekend in the CAA Tournament, where he was the MVP.
Maine will be appearing in a NCAA tournament regional for the first time since 2006. The Black Bears (32-22 overall) were surprise winners of the America East tournament, which they had entered as the second seed behind an extremely strong Stony Brook squad. Maine is on a six game winning streak, and has won 17 of their last 18.
Leading the way for the Black Bears is number one pitcher Keith Bilodeau, who boasts a 2.87 ERA and an impressive 10-2 record. This Cape Cod born and raised right hander is one of the national leaders in complete games pitched with five, and made the America East first team. Offensively, Justin Leisenheimer and Joey Martin are Maine’s leaders at bat. Leisenheimer has eight home runs on the season, including one during the tournament championship against Stony Brook, and is hitting .327. Martin, the team’s other America East first team selection, has been pushing the offense through the regular season, has 44 RBIs and 33 runs scored. The senior is not only a leader on the scorecard but a leader of his teammates, and will be one to watch against North Carolina on Friday.
Chapel Hill Regional
#2 Florida International vs. #3 James Madison – 1pm
#1 North Carolina vs. #4 Maine – 6pm
3. James Madison