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May 28, 2012

Tar Heel time

North Carolina learned on Monday who is coming to Chapel Hill for the opening of the NCAA baseball tournament this weekend.

The Tar Heels (44-14) are the sixth of eight national seeds, and they are a host for the first weekend of four-team regionals.

"We're excited to be a national seed," senior catcher Jacob Stallings said. "We feel like our body of work definitely warrants our seed."

UNC has played in five of the last six College World Series.

East Carolina (35-22-1) is the second seed in the Chapel Hill region. The Pirates will play No. 3-seed St. John's (37-21) in the first game on Friday at 1 p.m.

Top-seeded Carolina will play Ivy League champion Cornell (31-15-1) at 6 p.m. on Friday.

If the Tar Heels can win the opening four-team regional, they will host a Super Regional best-of-three for the right to play in the College World Series against the winner of the Tucson Region, which means either Arizona, Missouri, New Mexico State, or Louisville would come to Chapel Hill for a berth in Omaha.

"We talk about all year," said Carolina's top pitcher, Kent Emanuel, who pitched a complete-game shutout against Texas at the Series in Omaha, Neb., a year ago. "This is the best part of the year. We're out of class. We're starting the postseason, and the games really mean a lot."

UNC defeated St. John's earlier this year, 8-4 on Feb. 28. Carolina defeated East Carolina in Chapel Hill on April 25. The Tar Heels won that game 1-0 in the bottom of the 10th inning.

Since that East Carolina game, the Tar Heels have been scoring more runs. This is not a great offensive team, although it has days when it explodes for double-digit runs.

But this team has evolved into an entirely different squad since that game against East Carolina. The Tar Heels have won 15 of their last 16 games.

"Probably this year, more so than any year, we really feel like we're playing our best ball right now," Stallings said. "We're always going to pitch well, but offensively and defensively we're playing really well."

The strength of this team, however, is clearly defense and pitching. Carolina is third in the nation in team earned run average at 2.61.

Unlike the past, when the Tar Heels had two or three star pitchers who started and an excellent closer, this team is loaded with quality depth.

UNC shut out two of its three opponents in the ACC Tournament, holding N.C. State to no runs in twelve innings.

The quality of depth in pitching on this team appears to be the best in the Mike Fox era.

Emanuel is the leader with an 8-4 record, a 2.03 ERA and 99 strikeouts to just 22 walks. His record would be better, but the Tar Heels struggled to score during many of his starts.

Nonetheless, the strength of the pitching staff goes on and on. N.C. State Elliott Avent said the Tar Heels may have the best bullpen in the country.

"Even from the beginning of the year we knew that was going to be one of our strengths," Emanuel said. "If we have a starter taken out in the first inning, we still feel confident we're going to go win that game."

Fox said this is the hottest streak of pitching by a group of pitchers he has ever seen.

"We have pitched unbelievably well," Fox said. "I've never had a team that has had a stretch like this, where we have just pitched as such a high level."

UNC beat East Carolina in back-to-back games in Chapel Hill in a 2009 Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

The Pirates play in Chapel Hill each year, so they will not be awed in any way by Carolina.

"We had an incredible game here with East Carolina [this season], where nobody could score," Fox said. "They're used to being here. They're used to being in a regional here. They are going to come in here extremely ready. So I think it's a tough regional for us. We're going to have to play well."



 

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