North Carolina typically would have a decent-sized edge over South Carolina when it comes to the starting rotation, but things just might be different this weekend with the Tar Heels having to reshuffle things after throwing a couple of starting pitchers in relief last weekend in the Chapel HIll Regional finale against Florida Atlantic.
Usual UNC Friday starting pitcher Kent Emanuel is on the shelf until at least Saturday, his expected start day for the Tar Heels this weekend. Emanuel is being pushed back a day for a good reason. He started last Saturday against Towson, throwing 124 pitches in a win over the Tigers. Meanwhile, he threw in relief two days later, 51 pitches in 1 2/3 innings against Florida Atlantic. For the year, Emanuel has a 2.70 ERA in 120 innings, along with 88 strikeouts and 27 walks. Meanwhile, he has good overall stuff with a fastball anywhere from 88-92, along with good secondary stuff.
The Tar Heels will go with right-handed pitchers Benton Moss or Chris Munnelly, or left-handed pitcher Hobbs Johnson in the series opener, while whoever doesn't start the series opener out of Moss and Johnson likely gets the starting nod in the series finale.
Moss has a 3.78 ERA in 85 2/3 innings, along with 89 strikeouts and 33 walks. Moss has good overall stuff, but tends to be a little erratic at times from a command standpoint. Meanwhile, Johnson had an injury earlier this season, but has rebounded quite nicely with a solid campaign, sitting with a 2.09 ERA in 77 1/3 innings, along with 71 strikeouts and 46 walks.
While it's very likely Moss or Johnson starts the series opener, Munnelly definitely is the wild card. The Tar Heels could choose to trot him out there after he threw just 46 pitches in three innings of work against Florida Atlantic earlier this week.
Though North Carolina's pitching situation is in limbo leading up to the weekend, with an official rotation announcement expected sometime Thursday, the Gamecocks are pretty much set for the weekend with left-handers Nolan Belcher, Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop leading the charge.
Belcher is Mr. Crafty on the mound for the Gamecocks. Belcher isn't a big guy who will blow pitches by hitters, but he has good pitchability and keeps the ball in the strike zone with good location. Belcher struggled in the SEC tournament two weeks ago, but bounced back last weekend against Saint Louis, striking out six, walking none and allowing a run on four hits in 6 1/3 innings of work.
Montgomery is a very intriguing arm. He's tall and somewhat imposing, and had an impressive freshman campaign for the Gamecocks. Montgomery typically sat in the upper-80s for the Gamecocks last season, but was up to 91 on my radar gun at the SEC tournament. Montgomery has a 1.67 ERA in 70 innings, along with 57 strikeouts and 17 walks, as well as a .234 opponent batting average.
Last but not least, Wynkoop has been a very impressive freshman arm for the Gamecocks. Again, like Montgomery last season, Wynkoop typically sits in the mid-to-upper 80s, but he's been consistent with a 2.92 ERA in 61 2/3 innings, along with 36 strikeouts and 11 walks.
North Carolina and South Carolina each have good bullpens entering the weekend, but they're also vastly different in nature.
For instance, the Tar Heels have one of the nation's deepest pitching staffs, while the Gamecocks typically rely on two or three arms to get the job done. Though the two teams do things different ways, they're both effective in their game management.
For the Gamecocks, veteran left-handed pitchers Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland lead the charge. Webb is an interesting story to say the least. During the offseason, the Gamecocks continuously discussed a potential plan to make Webb the Friday night starter. But as the season arrived, they found a perfect role for Webb as the team's closer.
Webb has since added a couple of ticks to his fastball, and with his imposing frame and ability to command his repertoire, has evolved into one of college baseball's elite closers. Webb has appeared in 30 games this season, recorded 17 saves and has a 1.36 ERA in 39 2/3 innings. he also has struck out 60, walked 12 and teams only are hitting him at a .205 clip.
Westmoreland is another great story. The Gamecocks expected a lot of Westmoreland out of high school, but health has always been a concern with him -- at least until this season. The bulky left-handed pitcher has been terrific out of the bullpen, showing an impressive ability to keep his pitchers low in the strike zone. Westmoreland has appeared in 27 games and has a 2.10 ERA in 60 innings. Like Webb, he has 60 strikeouts, along with 11 walks and .218 opponent batting average.
North Carolina doesn't have a reliever with an insane number of saves like Webb for South Carolina, but it has a very deep and talented group.
The Tar Heels decided about mid-season to go with freshman right-handed pitcher Trent Thornton as the closer. Thornton has a bulldog-like mentality out on the mound and has good stuff, with a fastball sitting 91-93 when we saw the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C., a few weeks ago. Thornton has a 1.17 ERA and eight saves in 77 innings, while teams are hitting him at a .192 clip.
UNC has plenty of other options, too. Trevor Kelley has good stuff with good velocity on his fastball, along with a 3.67 ERA in 41 2/3 innings, while right-handed pitcher Chris McCue is a guy pitching coach Scott Forbes trusts with a 2.30 ERA in 54 2/3 innings of work.
I'd also keep an eye on Reilly Hovis, who rose to the occasion against FAU earlier this week by getting the Tar Heels out of jam. Hovis has been solid as of late, and has a 2.23 ERA in 32 1/3 innings of work, while situational pitcher Tate Parrish has appeared in 16 games and hard-throwing Mason McCullough could be a guy the Tar Heels rely on at some point this weekend. McCullough has a premium arm, but very much lacks command at times.
South Carolina has a shutdown closer in Webb, but UNC has more quality arms.
South Carolina might be a few points behind North Carolina in terms of team batting average, both of these clubs are what I'd consider solid from an offensive standpoint, especially the Tar Heels, who enter the weekend hitting .310 as a club.
The Tar Heels have a very productive and resilient lineup, as fans saw earlier this week against Florida Atlantic. The Tar Heels were down to their last three outs in the ninth inning against FAU, but battled back at the plate. They would do that same thing two more innings before finally outlasting the pesky Owls.
UNC has several key hitters to watch this weekend, but keep a close eye on first baseman Cody Stubbs, who has evolved from just a good hitter to a very good hitter this spring. Stubbs came up with several big hits over the weekend in the Chapel Hill Regional, and is hitting a team-high .372 with 24 doubles, four triples eight homers and 76 RBIs.
Third baseman Colin Moran is the one everyone will be talking about this weekend. There's a chance Moran could go No. 1 overall in the MLB draft to the Houston Astros tomorrow night. A couple of looks at Moran and it becomes clear why he's loved by those at the collegiate and professional level. Moran has the ability to hit to all sides of the field, with power, against both soft and hard throwers. Moran is hitting an impressive .348 with 10 doubles, two triples, 13 homers and 86 RBIs. He also has a .478 on-base percentage.
North Carolina has a balanced overall lineup with plenty of others to watch, too. Freshman outfielder Skye Bolt hasn't been as great as he was earlier this season after suffering an injury, but certainly is still an elite hitter with a .341 average, six homers and 49 RBIs, while Chaz Frank (.313/1/35), Brian Holberton (.308/10/52) and Mike Zolk (.273/2/37) are all guys who consistently record important hits. Also keep an eye on Landon Lassiter (.357/1/27) and Michael Russell (.314/2/36).
South Carolina enters the weekend with an opportunistic offense. That .284 team batting average won't scare the Tar Heels, but this is definitely a group with the ability to score a few runs, as evidenced by the offensive onslaught last weekend against Liberty.
The Gamecocks really like first baseman LB Dantzler as the rock in the middle of their offensive lineup. Dantzler has made big strides this season and is hitting .322 with 15 doubles, 15 homers and 51 RBIs, while shortstop Joey Pankake and catcher Grayson Greiner each are having productive campaigns with batting averages of .313 and .304, respectively. Meanwhile, Chase Vergason, Graham Saiko, Connor Bright and Max Schrock all have unimpressive batting averages, but that doesn't tell the tape -- all four have the ability to have big games.
There's also versatile outfielder Tanner English. Though English won't be confused with a traditional power hitter, he deserves some kudos for hitting his first career home run last weekend in the Columbia Regional. English is hitting .272 with a home run and 22 RBIs. Also keep an eye on Kyle Martin, who's hitting .290 with two homers and 10 RBIs, but was named the Columbia Regional Most Outstanding Player last weekend.
Both North Carolina and South Carolina enter the Chapel Hill Super Regional with good defensive clubs, but the Gamecocks get the edge in this department.
Though the Tar Heels took care of business in wild fashion against Florida Atlantic earlier this week, they suffered a big loss when catcher Matt Roberts went down with a broken thumb, an injury that will sideline him the rest of the season. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks have a very good and stable catcher in sophomore Grayson Greiner.
Going around the diamond, North Carolina's Colin Moran is much better defensively at third base than some will give him credit for, while Mike Zolk and Cody Stubbs are stable on the right side. The shortstop position is a concern at times, as Michael Russell has a fielding percentage of .938, though not near as unstable as Landon Lassiter at .857, though Lassiter serves primarily as designated hitter right now.
The Tar Heels have a solid defensive unit in the outfield, but it undoubtedly will be shaken up with Roberts going down behind the plate. Chaz Frank and Skye Bolt, both solid defenders that cover some ground, will stay in the outfield, while Parks Jordan likely will replace Brian Holberton, who moved to catcher in place of Matt Roberts against FAU earlier this week.
For the Gamecocks, we already talked about Greiner, while Dantzler is a rock at first base, and middle infielders Joey Pankake and Max Schrock are a quality tandem. Also in the outfield, Graham Saiko and Connor Bright are quality defenders, while English is battling through a pectoral muscle injury entering the weekend.
Don't look for either of these clubs to boot the ball around this weekend.