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May 31, 2012The team with the most Division I NCAA baseball tournament wins in America since 2006 will begin the hunt for the one victory that has eluded it.
Carolina (44-14), seeded sixth overall in the 2012 NCAA Tournament and first in the Chapel Hill regional, will play Cornell (31-15-1) on Friday. Second-seeded East Carolina (35-22-1) and third-seeded St. John's (37-21) will play the opening game at Boshamer Stadium.
Game times for Friday's games have been changed because of the possibility of rain late in the day. The Pirates and the Red Storm will start at 11 a.m. UNC and Cornell will begin approximately one hour after the first game ends.
This is the beginning of what the Tar Heels hope is another trip to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series. A year ago, they went 1-2 in Omaha, losing twice to Vanderbilt.
The single victory came in a memorable performance by left-handed starter Kent Emanuel, now a sophomore. He threw a complete-game shutout against Texas, sending the Longhorns home in an elimination game.
That experience should pay dividends this time around, Emanuel said.
"We know we don't want to just go back there," Emanuel said. "We want to win it. I think we're ready."
The Tar Heels have won 40 NCAA Tournament games since coming within one out of capturing the 2006 national championship. The difference between UNC and South Carolina, which is second with 33 tournament victories, is the Gamecocks have won the last two national championships.
But if there is one thing in baseball that can make a difference in tournament play, it is quality depth in a pitching staff. UNC has that, without a doubt.
Led by first-team All-American closer Michael Morin and Emanuel, the entire pitching staff has been a key to the Tar Heels winning 15 of their last 16 games. If the pitchers can continue to throw this well, they could pave the way back to Omaha and possibly even a national championship.
Carolina's collective 2.54 earned run average is third in the nation.
"Our pitching depth is unbelievable," Emanuel said. "I don't think it's matched by anybody in the country. If there is anything that would be able to carry us to that championship game, it would be our bullpen and our depth."
Defense has been critical to this team's development. UNC stumbled defensively in losing three straight at Miami in early April. The defense remained inconsistent until Coach Mike Fox shifted some players around, such as moving freshman Michael Russell to shortstop.
Getting third baseman Colin Moran back after he missed a stretch of games with a broken hand helped as well.
"We have pitched really well," center fielder Chaz Frank said. "We've been really good defensively. And we have done just enough on the offensive side to win those games."
The offense has improved. One reason is Frank, a leadoff hitter who can drive the ball and get extra bases with his speed. He is just as exciting playing defense in center field. He will run down balls in the gaps and take away extra-base hits from opponents.
"He's always been important," Fox said. "He's our leadoff, our catalyst. He's played unbelievable defense for us in center field. I think that's been lost. He's made some spectacular catches.
"He's really gotten hot the last month. He's been playing his best baseball the last third of the season. We want guys playing well at the end of the year, and he's doing it."
During this streak of 15 wins in 16 games, Frank has hit a team-high .403, scoring 12 runs. He has eight doubles and three triples in this span. Although he is the leadoff hitter, his 18 runs batted in during the last 16 games are the most on the team.
The winning streak and Carolina's overall improvement as a team began with a 10-inning, 1-0 victory against East Carolina in Chapel Hill on April 25.
As well as the Tar Heels played until that point of the season, they have taken a major leap forward since then.
"It's been fun to see," Emanuel said. "Everything is coming together. You see your team growing. We had that little rough patch and then the next thing you know, we have a huge winning streak."