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May 3, 2007
Carolina pitching staff stays strong
During the Tar Heels' march to the College World Series a year ago, Mike Fox calmly said Carolina's pitching would be just fine when eventual first-round draft choices Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard left for Major League Baseball.
Sure enough, as the Tar Heels break for exams this week with a 37-10 overall record, 16-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Carolina's team earned run average is 2.94. And that is without the two marquee arms that led the club last season.
Stop and think about that for a minute. If you know baseball and the effect aluminum bats have on the game, you'll understand an ERA under three at this point of the season is nothing short of remarkable.
Even the best pitcher in the country a year ago, UNC's Miller, would give up an occasional bloop hit because he tried to jam a hitter and the batter managed to put the ball in play off the handle; whereas, a wooden bat would have broken on the same pitch.
"We're OK," said Coach Mike Fox, who is in his ninth season at his alma mater. "Our pitching has been terrific. You look at our numbers, compared to this time last year, just on paper, our numbers are better. We've been fortunate.
"We've had some guys really step up and fill some big voids for us. Matt Danford has had a terrific season. Rob Wooten has just come on. It's been really fun to watch those kids who have kind of been in the shadows and background in the past get an opportunity to step up when it's their time and get things done. It's been fun to watch."
Last season, the ACC placed four teams in the College World Series, and UNC was the one to play for the national championship. Carolina got to within half a game from the title, too, before it lost the lead and the momentum in the series against Oregon State.
Nonetheless, the experience has helped this team, which has managed to stay ranked the near top of the polls throughout the season.
This past weekend, Carolina went to Raleigh and N.C. State hammered the Tar Heels 11-1 in the first of a three-game series. Fox used the program's new elite status to motivate his kids to come back and take the next two from the Wolfpack.
"We've got our program in the position where we've all wanted it," Fox said. "There are people who say, 'Oh, gosh, you dropped from two to sixth in the polls, or three to seven.' We're like: 'This is pretty good. Three years ago we were just trying to get into the top 20.'
"That comes with it. And we've talked about, 'Let's don't shy away from that. This is where we wanted the program. And this is why you guys have worked so hard. When you get into that situation, you have to relish it. You have to meet all those obligations. That is part of what we have to do.
"We challenged them with that on Friday: 'Let's don't back down to anyone. People expect us to be there at the end, and that is where we want to be.' I think last year helps with those kinds of challenges."
The veterans who returned, kids such as shortstop Josh Horton, infielder/outfielder Reid Fronk, catcher, pitcher and first baseman Tim Federowicz, outfielder Seth Williams, pitcher Andrew Carignan and pitcher Robert Woodard, have performed as expected for the most part.
Carolina has also received a huge contribution from two rookies. Freshman first baseman Dustin Ackley and freshman pitcher Alex White have played with the poise and execution of veterans. Ackley leads the team in hitting with a .441 batting average. He's tied for the lead in home runs with six, has a team-high 53 runs batted in, and he needs just 10 hits to move into UNC's top 10 in single-season hits.
"He's a special talent," Fox said of Ackley. "He has a great swing. He has great balance and great vision. He has a great temperament. His makeup as a player is off the chart. He's very calm. He doesn't get too excited one way or the other.
"He's been taught very well. His dad played minor-league baseball for eight years. He signed out of high school. This kid knows how to play the game. He's kind of the equivalent of a gym rat in basketball. He is eat up with the game. He loves it. He's pretty special."
Fox knew White would be a contributor and probably an eventual star.
The right-handed pitcher has a 3.34 ERA and is 4-3 on the season. He pitched the second game of the series against N.C. State and struck out a career-high 11 batters in the Tar Heels' 9-3 victory against the Wolfpack.
His main pitches are a fastball and slider, but he will occasionally throw a changeup. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the 14th round last June.
"Everybody knew Alex had a chance to be pretty good," Fox said. "That's why he was a draft pick, and everybody was on him last year. He's a big-time competitor. He's got a great arm, but he has got some heart and some toughness to him that I think has made him even better."
Carolina's first game after exams will be Tuesday at Elon. They then travel to East Carolina on the May 9 and return home for a big conference series, which begins on May 11 against Georgia Tech at 7 p.m.