North Carolina heads into a season filled with high expectations as the Diamond Heels take on Seton Hall Friday afternoon at Boshamer Stadium. First pitch is scheduled for around 3:00 pm.
The Diamond Heels, coming off a stellar 46-16 season that resulted in an ACC Coastal Division regular season title and national seeding in the NCAA Tournament, return starters at six positions, as well as its entire starting rotation. They've also added multiple freshmen who will make early impacts.
There are only three seniors on this Tar Heel squad (center fielder Chaz Frank, relief pitcher Chris Munnelly, and first baseman Cody Stubbs), but there are nine juniors, including some of the top college diamond prospects in America.
"Munnally, Stubbs, and I are the only seniors here, and we've had a lot of experience on the field," said Frank, who hit .293 with 39 RBIs last spring. "We've got some great experience on this team. I look at myself and (Kent) Emanuel and Colin (Moran), yeah, there's some leadership roles."
"Also we've got some young guys who are going to step into some roles this year, and hopefully we can be there for them during the good times and bad times."
"That's probably the biggest plus of our team this year, is just experience," added head coach Mike Fox. "That's a good feeling. That's a good feeling for every coach to have that you have a good nucleus of players that have been there and done that before, because you can't coach it and you can't teach it. You just have to have it. You have to work through freshmen and young guys to get experience."
"We've got a lot of depth everywhere pretty much. It's real strong. We've got a lot of good freshmen. The older guys have come into their own. The competition is good, and I think it will be a successful season," added junior third baseman Colin Moran.
Carolina welcomes back two starting outfielders---Frank in center and junior Parks Jordan in left---and is introducing a new starter, freshman Skye Bolt in right field, with a great deal of potential.
Frank is moving back over to center field this season as the Tar Heels replace graduated senior Ben Bunting.
"The coaches have plans for us, but it looks that way, that I'm going to start in center, I think so, to start off the year," Frank said.
Frank is a spark plug at the top of the lineup for UNC, a frequent baserunner (he walked 46 times in 2012 and had a .419 on base percentage) with the ability to steal bases.
Jordan is a solid batsman farther down the Tar Heel lineup. He's a good contact hitter prone for sacrifice flies and other opportunities with runners on base. He's also capable of stepping in from time to time and playing first base due to his good defensive skills.
Bolt, a 6-2, 175-pounder out of Woodstock (Ga.), has a chance to be a huge contributor this season.
A switch-hitter, Bolt is another guy who puts the bat on the ball, and his versatility and speed is something that Coach Fox could use in a lot of ways.
"We've got a number of (rookies) that are probably going to have an opportunity (to play right away including) Skye Bolt in the outfield," said Fox.
"One thing about the outfield, we're going to have a lot of speed," added Frank.
"We've got a freshman, Skye Bolt, he's going to step in there in right field and play for us. Parks is returning from last year, and Zach Daly is a freshman that can cover a lot of ground. So we're going to have a really fast outfield, and I think a really experienced outfield."
Frank, Jordan, and Bolt appear to be the starting outfield for Carolina heading into the season opener but there is quality depth behind them, including junior Brian Holberton, who hit .297 and earned second-team All-ACC honors last spring.
While he'll likely spend most games in the lineup as UNC's primary Designated Hitter, Holberton is capable of playing left or right field, and can provide Carolina a good stopgap on those days when Jordan or Bolt need a rest or if either get hurt.
Daley, a 6-2, 180-pounder from Forestview High School in Gastonia (N.C.), gives UNC another speed option in the outfield, and he could emerge as Frank's top backup over the course of the year in center field in preparation for taking over that job in 2014, while also getting sporadic work in both left and right field.
Others that could be in position for playing time in the outfield this season for Carolina, or to get the occasional pinch hit opportunity, include junior outfielder Tom Zengal and freshmen Alex Raburn and Michael Massardo.
UNC is doing some rotating along the middle infield this season, but the infield as a whole should be one of the strengths of this Tar Heel team.
At first and third base stand two of the teams' offensive cornerstones---third baseman Colin Moran, the best hitter on the team and maybe the entire country, and first baseman Cody Stubbs, who started all 62 games in 2012 and led the team in home runs (five) while finishing second on the ballclub in doubles (19).
Moran, a Golden Spikes Award candidate and preseason first-team All-American, is spending one final spring in Chapel Hill before he'll likely be a high selection in the 2013 MLB First-Year Draft.
"I have high goals for myself. I feel strong. I've worked really hard this offseason to keep getting better. I think this could be one of my best years defensively, and I think I can help the team win," Moran told us.
His sophomore season got off to a promising start before some minor self-destruction, as a fateful punch into a bathroom door in frustration after an error in a loss to N.C. State resulted in a broken hand and 21 missed games.
Moran came back for UNC's stretch run, finishing the season hitting .365, but there's still a sense of what might have been last year had he not missed so much action.
"It feels really good (to get going again). I'm just really excited after a long offseason of working hard. It will just be nice when that first pitch is thrown and the season gets underway," he said.
Moran's passion for the game, combined with his outstanding skills, could lead to a long career in the Major Leagues someday, but he's got to channel his energy a little better and not allow himself to get so frustrated this season when things don't go his way, as they surely will at some point.
If so, he could have a special season.
In the middle infield, the Diamond Heels appear to be setting up Michael Russell for a shift from shortstop to second base, while rookie Landon Lassiter is in position to be Carolina's starting shortstop.
Fox mentioned that Lassiter would be in position to play right away, and through the Fall World Series and recent scrimmages it looks as though the 6-1, 180-pounder from North Davidson High in High Point (N.C.) has indeed won the shortstop job.
A sixteenth-round selection of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2012 MLB Draft, Lassiter chose instead to come to Chapel Hill, and he provides the Tar Heels a sure glove and an active bat.
Russell could provide Lassiter some spells of relief at shortstop given how well he handled the role for the Tar Heels in 2012, and others who could get work in the middle infield for UNC includes the versatile Alex Raburn, as well as freshman Matt Campbell, who can play both second base and shortstop if need be.
"It's up to the coaches. They (Lassiter and Russell) both strong candidates for the position, so I'm comfortable with whoever the coaches put in the lineup," Moran said of his middle infield teammates. "I definitely think we have a lot of ways that we can beat a team, and hopefully we can put those to use once the season starts."
UNC has to absorb the loss of multi-year starter and team leader Jacob Stallings at the catcher position, but the team has a couple guys chomping at the bit to step into the lineup and show what they can do, including junior Matt Roberts and freshman Korey Dunbar.
Roberts was plagued by injuries for much of his first two seasons in Chapel Hill playing behind the productive Stallings.
A year ago Roberts hit just .111 with one RBI and three hits in five starts and 20 total appearances but now, at least for the time being, he appears to be the guy behind the plate for the Tar Heels.
"To be honest, I haven't thrown much to Matt Roberts this offseason. I spent a lot of time with the other guys, maybe because they know I'm an older guy, and I don't need the connection (with Roberts) as much as the other dudes," said Emanuel.
"I'm excited to have a fresh face back there and just build a relationship. That's what it is---it's a relationship," the pitcher added.
Roberts is the heir apparent to the UNC starting catcher job and it's his for the moment, but he could get pushed hard by Dunbar, a scrappy 6-0, 215-pounder from Charleston (W.V.) who got off to a slow start in the fall but has really come on strong in the months since.
"Korey Dunbar behind the plate (will see action)," said Coach Fox.
"We've got Korey Dunbar getting some competition. Dunbar works hard," added Emanuel.
Carolina returns quite possibly the best pitching staff in America, a three-man pitching rotation of juniors Kent Emanuel and Hobbs Johnson, as well as sophomore Benton Moss, that should stack up well with anyone.
A season ago the trio combined to go 22-7.
The 22 wins is tied with Louisville for most wins returning to any college starting pitching rotation in the country.
Emanuel is the ace of the staff---a brilliant combination of size, strength, and power that could one day be at the top of the rotation of a big league ballclub---but ironically enough, the Southpaw's 1.96 ERA in 2012 was higher than that of both Moss (1.94) and Johnson (1.56).
So while the Emanuel might be classified as the 'Friday' starter, Moss as the 'Saturday' starter, and Johnson as the 'Sunday' starter for Carolina, Emanuel is quick to point out that they're all aces in his book.
"I think we're all real competitive, so I think no matter what we're labeled as, we're going to go out there to try to do our best. Hopefully we're going to be as productive if not more productive (than last year)," he said.
The 6-4 Emanuel spent this past summer mostly in the gym, enhancing his frame to a sturdy 225 pounds, before getting back into a throwing pattern in the fall that has potentially added more velocity to his pitches.
"This summer I didn't play summer ball. I just went home and basically sent the whole day in the gym, and I got a meal plan with the nutritionist, so I was able to put on some pounds of muscle, and that's really all I was trying to do this summer, was try to get as strong as I can physically," Emanuel said.
"Then in the fall I started throwing again, got to scrimmage. Hopefully it translates into higher velocity. I know it has in the past. Every year I weigh a little more and I throw a little harder, so hopefully this year is going to keep that trend going. I guess we'll find out."
Emanuel will get a lot of headlines this season because of his high draft potential, but opponents had better not sleep on Moss, who struck out 83 batters in 79 innings against just 23 walks last season, allowing just 17 earned runs.
A crafty pitcher with a good mix of speed and control, Moss gives the UNC coaches a guy that can go deep into games and be relied upon to keep the team out of trouble most of the time.
And then there's Johnson, who came out of nowhere to go 7-1 in 2012 with 69 strikeouts and 24 walks allowed in 57.2 innings of work.
As a freshman in 2011 Johnson threw just 3.2 innings all season, and came into last season as a complete unknown.
He more than proved his worth, setting himself up this season to be one of the more valuable players on the entire UNC ballclub.
While smaller in stature than Emanuel and Moss, Johnson makes up for it with heart and fight. He's gone out in the middle of the week before (he threw four innings against UNC-Asheville last year on a Tuesday, earning his fifth win), and he took a perfect game into the eighth inning against Virginia Tech.
Veteran right-handers Shane Taylor and Chris Munnelly and left-hander Chris O'Brien will likely be the team's other starters, getting action during weekday games. Munnelly has started at least eight games in each of his first three years with the Diamond Heels.
In the bullpen the Tar Heels will have a wealth of possibilities, including junior left-hander Tate Parrish, junior right-hander Shane Taylor, sophomore right hander Luis Paula, sophomore left-hander Chris O'Brien, and a handful of rookies, in long-relief and setup roles.
Taylor, a midweek starter, could see long relief work at different junctures, as could O'Brien.
"Luis Paula, Chris O'Brien, Tate Parrish and Shane Taylor (will all get work late in games). I did not mention him (Taylor) starting, last year against Duke he was sensational. He is in the mix (in the bullpen)," said Coach Fox.
Fox hinted that sophomore right-hander Trevor Kelly has the inside track to the closer's role heading into the season opener.
"Trevor Kelly---if we had to start tomorrow our closer would be Trevor Kelly based on what we saw in the fall and so far in the pre-season. That may change," Fox said.
Some freshmen will also get work out of the bullpen this season, including Trent Thornton, Taylore Cherry, and Reilly Hovis, among others.
"On the mound probably three freshman pitchers in Trent Thornton, Reilly Hovis, and Taylore Cherry are all in the mix to get an opportunity to get on the field in some way, shape, or form," said Fox.
"(Of) the three freshmen, Trent Thornton probably will be the freshman who will be the first one that we will throw out there and have him jump in the water."