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April 25, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Because it’s such a long season, baseball tends to be an even-keel sport with teams not getting too up or too down for any one game or one series.
But that’s not the case this weekend.
When North Carolina visits NC State, the atmosphere will be filled with enough drama and passion to satisfy the most ardent fans. All three games at Doak Field are sold out. The Friday and Saturday games start at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN3 and the Sunday game at 7 p.m. on ESPNU.
The programs have been intense baseball rivals for a long time. The Wolfpack enter the weekend with a 15-game winning streak, the longest in the nation. The Tar Heels sport a gaudy 40-3 record and are ranked No. 1 in the country.
Throw into the mix that each team is leading its division in the ACC standings – State is 14-7 in the Atlantic, Carolina is 18-2 in the Coastal.
“I don’t know that this rivalry needs any additional spike to it,” said UNC coach Mike Fox. “But we’re leading the Coastal, they’re leading the Atlantic and it’s going to be fun. It’s just three out of 30 (conference) games but it is State and Carolina and we’re both playing well, so that’s exciting.
“They’re clicking on all cylinders now. To say that we’re going to have a battle on our hands over there is an understatement.”
Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent carried it a step further.
“We’re leading our divisions, we’re 25 minutes apart, we’re playing our best baseball and Carolina has been playing great all year,” he said. “It’s great for college baseball, great for the ACC, great exposure for both schools and the Sunday night game will be on TV.”
Avent’s team, after a sluggish start due in part to some injuries, has found its stride. Not only is the Pack healthy now, but it has developed a knack for winning close games. During the 15-game winning streak they have won six games by one run and two more games by two runs.
“Winning close games, winning come-from-behind games like (Tuesday) night (against Davidson) and Sunday at Georgia Tech, you learn how to win,” Avent said. “And the next thing you know you’re working on a 15-game win streak.”
As anyone who plays the Pack realizes, the catalyst is sophomore Trea Turner. Around mid-season he injured his ankle and chipped a bone in his leg causing him to miss 10 games. He said he’s “about 90 percent” now and able to play through the ankle soreness that will linger until the season is over.
“It has slowed me down a little,” Turner said, “but that’s more mental than physical. I have to get back to trusting myself and trusting the jumps I get.”
Turner leads the Pack with a .438 average, 48 runs scored and six home runs. He has stolen 18 bases in 22 attempts.
“He’s still the fastest guy I’ve ever seen,” Avent said, “and he can still do a lot of things and hurt you a lot of ways. Is he 100 percent? Probably not, but whatever he is, it’s still pretty good.”
Fox called Turner a table-setter whose power and speed can ignite an offense by himself.
“He’s a fun player to watch,” Fox said. “He’s not fun from the other dugout, but he’s fun for the fans, I know that.”
As Avent pointed out, State’s offense isn’t a one-man show. Tarron Senay is hitting .333 with five homers and 45 RBIs. Jake Fincher is at .325 and Brett Austin at .294. The Pack has 80 stolen bases in 98 attempts and has plenty of speed besides Turner. Brett Austin has 14 stolen bases, Fincher 13 and Austin 10.
“We’re coming together as a team,” Turner said. “We struggled a little bit in the beginning of the year; we were ranked pretty high and we dropped out of the Top 25. Now we’re getting back up there, we’re starting to have fun and come together and it’s been pretty cool. As a team we’re making progress toward where we want to go.”
The Tar Heels have been hot since the start of the season. They had a 16-game winning streak early and their latest streak of 14 straight was snapped with a loss to UNC Wilmington on Tuesday.
“A lot of things have to go well for you,” Fox said. “It’s talent, it’s performance and there’s a little bit of luck mixed in. It’s good pitching and staying out of that big inning, which we’ve been able to do from a defensive standpoint, and converting opportunities to score with two-out hits and two-out RBIs. We’ve had a combination of a lot of those things go right for us up to this point.”
Senior Cody Stubbs said team chemistry has been an important part of the equation.
“To be honest, it’s just a blur,” he said of the season. “When things are going good, I guess you don’t really think about them. This being my senior season, I wanted to do whatever I could to help my team win and just have as much fun as I possibly could. I can’t put into words just how amazing it has been so far.”
From Avent’s perspective, UNC is a complete team with excellent starting pitching, a good bullpen, a premier player in Colin Moran, a solid lineup one through nine and good defense.
“There’s not a weakness on the ball club,” Avent said.
Moran is having an exceptional season, hitting .395 with 10 homers and 67 RBIs. Stubbs is hitting .376 with six homers, 17 doubles and 57 RBIs. Brian Holbertson is at .345 and Landon Lassiter at .328. Carolina leads the ACC with a team batting average of .316.
UNC will play this series without freshman Skye Bolt, hitting .392 with six homers and 41 RBIs. Bolt broke a bone in his foot last weekend and will be re-evaluated next week.
As important as the offenses will be, pitching might decide the series. Carolina will throw Kent Emanuel (8-1, 1.82 ERA) on Friday, Benton Moss (7-0, 2.81) Saturday and Hobbs Johnson (2-0, 2.45) Sunday.
The Pack will counter with Ryan Wilkins (5-1, 3.16) Friday, Carlos Rodon (4-2, 4.48) Saturday and Brad Stone (2-1, 6.23) Sunday. Rodon, who can be dominant, is coming off a complete game win over Georgia Tech last week.
With two teams this hot, you never know exactly what will make the difference in any given game. Avent said it could be the team that gets the timely hits. Fox said his club can’t afford to give up extra outs that can lead to a big inning.
“Every little detail – sacrifice bunts, errors, all the small stuff that you overlook – is magnified in big games like that,” Turner said. “Especially in a rivalry game, you need every little chance you get to win the game.
“In order to have a chance to win a series like that, we need to minimize mistakes, play good defense and take advantage of runners in scoring position. If you leave people on, that hurts you.”
Stubbs said State’s crowd will be a factor.
“We definitely have to keep our composure,” he said. “They’re at home, so that gives them an advantage, and they have talent. So we’ll have to play our best.”
Make no mistake, players and fans alike for both teams are well aware of the implications of this series.
“You couldn’t ask for a more perfect situation than this weekend as far as its importance and our rivalry,” Stubbs said. “That part of it makes it even more special.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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