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May 30, 2007

White provides UNC with golden new arm

Carolina lost between $5 and $10 million in pitching from last year's College World Series team, yet the Tar Heels have returned to throw the ball as well as they did a year ago.

Andrew Miller, one of the two UNC pitchers to go in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft last June, threw six scoreless innings for the Detroit Tigers two weeks ago. Yet the 6-foot-6 Miller could not have done any better than 6-3 freshman Alex White did on Saturday against Virginia at the ACC Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla.

White allowed two hits and no runs in seven innings against the nationally ranked Cavaliers. White has played a huge role in the Tar Heels continuing to pitch in a dominant fashion throughout this season.

"One thing we have not had to teach Alex is how to compete," UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said. "That is more important that anything. His competitive edge is something you can't teach. We're very fortunate we have a lot of pitchers like that. They believe they are better than the hitters.

"That is something he has had all year, and now, he has started to learn how to pitch instead of throw. As he learns, the sky is the limit for him."

UNC is second in the ACC with a team earned run average of 3.17, while teams are hitting .241 against the Tar Heels. Last season's team, which came within half a game of winning the national championship, finished with an ERA of 3.35 and teams hit .238 against it.

White is a big reason for the continued excellence.

Senior pitcher Robert Woodard rooms with White on road trips, and he's been a mentor to the right-hander from Greenville.

"You're going to have your great starts and you're going to have your bad starts," Woodard said. "You just try to maintain a level of confidence, and never get too high or two low with your emotions.

"One of the biggest adjustments is the quality of hitters one through nine," Woodard said. "In high school, he could dominate six or seven hitters on average in every lineup, I'm sure."

White, who is 6-4 with a 3.35 earned run average, concedes he had to learn what it really means to pitch when he came to Chapel Hill.

"I've had to change some pitches," White said. "I'm throwing the changeup now. Especially against left-handed hitters, it was a little tougher earlier in the season. Now I'm starting to get a little feel for the changeup, and it's made things a little easier.

"The slider would be my second pitch. Everybody on the staff, we make it a point to go off the fastball."

Forbes says it can be a case of extremes with young pitchers such as White. Their arms are so strong they dominate hitters in high school and then when they try to locate the ball in college, they become too careful. White is just now hitting his stride because he is getting a grasp of the balance required to be successful every day at this level, Forbes said.

"When you have a kid like Alex who comes in here with that arm, he's used to being able to throw the ball right down the middle, 92, 93 miles per hour in high school and get away with it," Forbes said. "Here, we want to pitch for contact, but you can pitch on the outer and inner part of the plate.

"The biggest challenge is he had been able to rely on his stuff and not learn to pitch. He has really worked hard to develop a changeup. All of them, we have to get them to trust their stuff. They have to believe in every pitch that they throw and not try to be so perfect. Early in the year, Alex thought he had to be perfect and only throw the ball on the black [part of the plate]. We don't want to walk people. We don't want to beat ourselves. We want to make people swing the bats."

The Tar Heels, seeded No. 1 in the regional that will be played in Chapel Hill this weekend and No. 3 overall in the NCAA baseball tournament, are 48-12 in large part because they have been able to replace the golden arms of Miller and Daniel Bard.

This year's weekend rotation of Woodard, White and Luke Putkonen appear to be hitting their stride as the tournament begins on Friday at Boshamer Stadium. UNC will play Jacksonville at 6 p.m. in the Tar Heels' opening game.

White says when his turn comes again, he will take the mound with a great deal of confidence after the performance he gave against Virginia at the ACC Tournament.

"It was a lot of fun," White said. "That is what I look forward to. That is why I came to Carolina, to be in a situation like that. Even as a freshman, I want to be in that situation every chance I get. Coming in as a freshman and having a good outing against Virginia in the ACC Tournament helps me know I can do that against any team, and hopefully I will."



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