Believe it or not, North Carolina head coach Mike Fox is thoroughly enjoying his club’s challenging 2014 campaign.
The Tar Heels enter this weekend’s Florida State series with a 29-19 overall record, 13-11 ACC mark, which in the eyes of some, might not be perceived as too bad. But from the Tar Heels’ perspective, it’s far from the norm.
The season thus far has tested Fox and the Tar Heels to the brink, but they're staying strong. The Tar Heels had a 15-12 overall record, 5-7 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference after losing six-straight games to end the month of March, including a pair of series to Georgia Tech and Duke, the series against the Blue Devils a surprising and disappointing sweep.
Still, the Tar Heels kept with the task at hand, and that has since paid off. Since the end of March, the Heels have captured series over Boston College, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, while a road series against Virginia would’ve been a victory in their favor if a couple of more hits go their way. The moral of the story for the Tar Heels is rather simple right now. Sure, UNC has struggled with consistency for much of the season, but with series remaining against Florida State (at home) and Miami (on the road), they seem to be playing their best baseball at exactly the right time, even it has come with a bunch of bruises.
“We’ve obviously set a pretty high standard here recently. We knew this year might potentially be a little different for us because of all the players we lost, but we were going to try to plug in a bunch of new guys,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “We were a little up and down to start the season, and that shook our confidence pretty good.
“But to be honest, I’ve really enjoyed this team. It’s been nice to get in there with the guys and do a bit more teaching with some encouragement.”
While the season has had its ups and downs, the Tar Heels expected it. UNC lost several valuable pieces from last year’s team, including hitters Chaz Frank, Brian Holberton, Colin Moran and Cody Stubbs, while on the mound, the Heels had to replace Kent Emanuel and Hobbs Johnson. The pitching staff has been just fine for the Heels this spring, but the offense, as you might imagine, has struggled much of the way with a .271 batting average and very limited power production. Fox, though, sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think our guys have been swinging the bat a bit better as of late,” he said. “Early in the season, our guys were just going out there and trying way too hard to get hits. They wanted to be like last year’s lineup, and when that wasn’t happening, they started to press. We just need them to work their way through things and do well for us down the stretch.”
UNC junior shortstop Michael Russell was expected to have a productive year at the plate, and is meeting expectations with a .361 batting average, 16 doubles, a triple, four homers and 29 RBIs. But he’s the only one. Young Wood Myers had been a spark plug for the Tar Heels as of late, but will miss the next couple of weeks because of a hand injury. Meanwhile, it’s easy to see what the overall issue has been: Landon Lassiter is hitting .272, Skye Bolt is hitting .242 with just one home run and a .382 batting average, Parks Jordan is hitting .268 and Korey Dunbar, who the Tar Heels thought was a prime candidate to take a step forward this spring, is hitting just .233 with just a .337 OBP. Additionally, the Heels expected immediate production from Joe Dudek, and he’s hitting just .200 with 17 RBIs.
While the offense is a unit with much to be desired, the UNC pitching staff, as usual, looks strong with a couple of weeks left to the regular season. The staff has a 2.80 earned-run average and possesses a high quality one-two punch on the weekend in Trent Thornton and Benton Moss, a pair of righthanded pitchers with an ability to make someone’s NCAA Regional miserable.
Thornton jumped on the scene in a strong way last season as a freshman, and is having no problem meeting expectations. Thornton has a 1.85 ERA in 78 innings, along with 70 strikeouts and 20 walks, and continues to flash good stuff with a four-pitch mix, a fastball ranging from 92-93 mph, good breaking stuff and a nice changeup. Meanwhile, Moss' secondary stuff has allowed his fastball to play up this season, while Hovis is the biggest surprise. The Tar Heels expected Hovis to log some quality innings this year, but he’s evolved into one of the league’s better relievers with a 1.70 ERA in 29 appearances and 47 2/3 innings, while also possessing quality stuff, including a fastball ranging from 93-94 mph.
“Our pitching has been really good the entire season and we wouldn’t even be in the position we’re in right now if it wasn’t for those arms,” Fox said. “We’ve got a nice set of steady starters, and Hovis has really improved. He’s really calm and cool, and he shows that type of attitude at exactly the right time.”
The Tar Heels hope to show off Hovis, Thornton and others in the NCAA postseason. UNC once was in a must-win situation, but took some pressure off with some series wins over the past few weeks. As it stands, the Tar Heels have an RPI of 44 with an OK resume, meaning they’ll be just fine with winning one of their final two regular season series.
North Carolina hasn’t been at its best this season, but it might all be coming together with the postseason on the horizon.
GEORGIA TRYING TO SURPRISE
Georgia just somewhat being in the NCAA postseason discussion with only two weeks left to the regular season should make coach Scott Stricklin feel optimistic about the future.
When Stricklin took over the program last summer, he inherited a team that in the fall showed some good qualities, particularly in the way of young talent, but also one that had a long way to go to make a bold statement in the Southeastern Conference.
The Bulldogs don't have enough time left on the regular season schedule to take the conference by storm, but at 24-23 overall, 9-14 in league play, and sitting with an RPI of 50 after last weekend's surprising home series win over South Carolina, they have a chance to reach the NCAA postseason should they finish strong with remaining series against Ole Miss (on the road this weekend) and Kentucky (at home), in addition to one more midweek bout against rival Georgia Tech.
It hasn't always been pretty this season, but Stricklin sees progress.
“I like our guys. This is a team filled with guys who just want to win, and that's the biggest thing from a culture standpoint,” Stricklin said. “We went through a stage earlier this season where our guys were really consistent and believing in themselves. Then we had that tough road trip and returned home. I think our guys were lifted up a little by winning that series against the Gamecocks last weekend.”
Should the Bulldogs finish the regular season strong, some will need to step up from an offensive standpoint. The Bulldogs are hitting .257 as a team, with only utility player Hunter Cole hitting over .300 with a .326 batting average and 14 doubles. Cole, a talented junior prospect, entered the season as one of the Bulldogs' three starting outfielders. However, the Bulldogs have had to use him at third base, and he has flourished at the position.
“The biggest story of this team right now is Hunter Cole,” Stricklin said. “He's come in and played third base, and is looking good doing it. He was a little rusty early on, but looks like a third base prospect. He's very athletic and has an outstanding arm over at third. He looks the part, and we've done a really good job of developing him along the way.”
The evolution of the pitching staff, especially the weekend rotation, is the most impressive aspect of Stricklin's team entering the final two weekends. Though the Bulldogs have some holes in the bullpen, the starting rotation is more than stable with sophomore lefthanded pitcher Ryan Lawlor, freshman righthanded pitcher Robert Tyler and redshirt sophomore David Sosebee leading the way.
Lawlor has put together some good performances over the past few weeks, especially last weekend against the Gamecocks, where he struck out six and allowed just one run on three hits in a complete game performance. Lawlor typically sits 87-90 fastball with life, while he's especially tough on lefthanded hitters. Meanwhile, Tyler, an imposing 6-foot-4, 210-pounder, is one of the nation's elite freshman arms with a 2.92 ERA in 64 2/3 innings, along with 57 strikeouts and 22 walks. He's also flashed elite stuff at times with a fastball sitting 94-97 mph, touching some 98s at times on a downhill plane.
“Lawlor has been a little up and down this season. He's been good at home, but not so much on the road at times,” Stricklin said. “Tyler is just hitting that freshman wall a little bit right now, but his velocity is still very good. For him, it's just kind of a mental thing right now. I thought he showed the best stuff he's had all year in the first inning against South Carolina last weekend.”
Georgia has the daunting task of trying to take a road series from Ole Miss this weekend. As Stricklin has found out over the past three months, that's life in the SEC.
SERIES TO WATCH – PICK'EM
Georgia Tech at No. 1 Virginia: The Yellow Jackets hit the road hoping to surprise with Devin Stanton and Josh Heddinger leading the way on the mound. However, the Cavaliers, powered by two-way star Nick Howard and outfielder Mike Papi, should take care of business at home. THE PICK: Virginia
No. 5 Florida State at North Carolina: This is going to be my upset of the week. FSU is the better team of the two when it's perfectly healthy, but with Brandon Leibrandt and Bryant Holtmann still out with injuries, and the Tar Heels needing a marquee home series win, I'm going with the Tar Heels in this one. THE PICK: UNC
No. 21 UC Irvine at No. 7 Cal Poly: The Anteaters have been outstanding as of late with righthanded pitcher Andrew Morales and others leading the way, but get their toughest test in weeks on the road against Cal Poly this weekend. The Mustangs hope to see lefthanded pitcher Matt Imhof return to form this weekend. THE PICK: Cal Poly
No. 20 Alabama at No. 10 LSU: After dropping a tough series on the road to Texas A&M last weekend, the Tigers return home to take on an Alabama squad, too, coming off a tough series loss to Florida. LSU has the edge in the series opener with Aaron Nola on the mound, and should pick up one more game the rest of the weekend. Still, this should be a very good overall series. THE PICK: LSU
No. 19 Oregon at Arizona State: The Ducks have had a tough time recording marquee series wins this season, but hope to turn the tide in that department this weekend against the Sun Devils. ASU needs to take two from the Ducks to solidify its postseason chances after getting swept by Oklahoma State last weekend. THE PICK: Oregon
No. 17 Vanderbilt at No. 4 Florida: This series began Thursday night with the Gators taking the series opener. UF has the bizarre late-season weekend rotation with a TBA nestled in the middle and Karsten Whitson finishing off the weekend, but that's more because Kevin O'Sullivan has plenty of premier options. THE PICK: Florida
No. 12 Miami at Duke: The Blue Devils have a good conference record, but their postseason resume leaves something to be desired. They could alleviate some at-large concerns with a home series win over the Hurricanes this weekend. Miami, though, is being much more productive offensively here as of late, and with its pitching staff, is a tough team to best right now. THE PICK: Miami
Georgia at No. 11 Ole Miss: I think the Bulldogs find a way to make this weekend's series against the Rebels competitive, but Ole Miss just has way too much balance with Sikes Orvis and the offense leading the way, while the weekend rotation is in great shape with Chris Ellis, Christian Trent and Sam Smith leading the way. THE PICK: Ole Miss
Tennessee at No. 22 Mississippi State: The Vols, too, have some red flags when it comes to their postseason resume. However, a series win over Mississippi State combined with last weekend's series win over Kentucky likely would solidify their position as an at-large team. The Bulldogs, though, pitched very well last weekend, and I expect that trend to continue this weekend. THE PICK: Mississippi State
San Diego at Pepperdine: The Toreros aren't a bad team, and they have some positives throughout their postseason resume However, with an RPI in the 70s, they really need a road series win over the Waves. Meanwhile, the Waves play excellent defense and are very good at home with two-way star Aaron Brown leading the charge. THE PICK: Pepperdine
No. 25 Texas A&M at Arkansas: Even with some injuries, the Hogs will make this a very tough series at home for the Aggies. However, losing lefthanded pitcher Jalen Beeks, and more, will hurt the Hogs against an A&M team surging at the right time with freshman outfielder Nick Banks leading the way. THE PICK: Texas A&M.
• TCU lefthanded pitcher Brandon Finnegan will return to the mound this weekend as the Horned Frogs take on Oklahoma at home. Finnegan missed his last start because of a mild issue, but threw very well and felt good during workouts this week. Finnegan, a likely high first-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft, has a 1.50 ERA in 72 innings, along with 96 strikeouts and 18 walks.
• USC imposing hitter Vahn Bozoian was dismissed from the program this week. Bozoian was a talented prospect out of high school, and though he showed some power at times this spring, was hitting just .269 with three homers and 13 RBIs, along with a .331 OBP.