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June 21, 2011
Steve Phillips, Assistant Director of Communications for the Atlantic Coast Conference, takes you Beyond the ACCtion in Omaha for the 2011 College World Series. Check theACC.com daily for more entries.
OMAHA, Neb. – Hours before tornado warnings and flash flood watches threw the 2011 College World Series into a temporary whirlwind, North Carolina freshman Kent Emanuel literally provided the calm before the storm.
The tall left-hander from Woodstock, Ga., obviously didn’t get the memo. North Carolina’s season was on the line against nationally fifth-ranked Texas in Monday afternoon’s game at TD Ameritrade Park. A loss would make the Tar Heels the first team to be eliminated from this year’s CWS, and on Tuesday morning – unless the rash of storms grounded all outgoing flights at Eppley Airfield – they would be on a charter home.
Instead, North Carolina plays on, and will face Vanderbilt or Florida in another must-win game on Wednesday night. The Tar Heels remain alive because Emanuel calmly and coolly checked the Longhorns with a masterful complete-game four-hitter, securing a 3-0 UNC win that could not have been as easy as he made it look.
Perhaps because he never allowed himself to get into serious trouble, Emanuel never showed the first sign of being a nervous freshman thrust on college baseball’s grandest stage. Had one not been watching live on ESPN or amongst the nearly 20,000 in attendance, Monday’s game could have passed for a midweek test against a non-conference opponent in early March.
“Coach, just curious -- have you had a chance to check Kent for a pulse?” Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt jokingly asked North Carolina’s Mike Fox after Emanuel finished the first complete-game CWS shutout since 2006 (vs. Clemson by UNC’s Robert Woodard, who viewed Monday’s performance up close and in person as a member of the Tar Heels’ coaching staff). It was the first shutout thrown in the CWS by a freshman since June 12, 1993 (which, as noted by ACC website coordinator Heather Hirschman, came when Emanuel was all of one year and eight days old).
“Other than his left arm, his best trait is his demeanor,” Fox said. “The very first time I met him, he was just exactly the way he's always been. I've never seen Kent any different. You just you don't see a lot of emotion out of him. That's what you want when you get on the mound, especially at this stage.”
Emanuel didn’t seek to overpower the Longhorns. He struck out a modest five hitters while walking only one and benefitted from seven infield pop-up outs. The Tar Heels also turned two double plays that originated with fly-ball outs and relay throws from the outfield.
“Any time we can end the inning on double play and get two for one is always big,” Emanuel said. “That's just credit to our outfielders today. Those are two uncommon double plays, and I was fortunate to have two of them today.”
But when a 19-year-old throws the first College World Series shutout by a freshman in 18 years and just the fourth by anyone in the last 20 years, it is more than a matter of simple good fortune.
“I thought his curveball and change-up command were what set this performance apart from maybe the rest of them (earlier this season),” said UNC junior catcher Jacob Stallings. “Usually he just absolutely commands his fastball and throws it wherever he wants to. It seemed like they were on his fastball a little bit, especially with two strikes, so we started going to more breaking balls and off speed pitches. I think that really had them off balance.”
Emanuel did more than earn a place in the CWS record book with Monday’s remarkable performance. By going the full nine innings, he allowed the Tar Heels to rest their bullpen. Considering that UNC still must win games on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of this week to emerge from its side of the bracket, the value of resting arms en masse on Monday was immeasurable.
”We want him to go deep,” Fox said. “If he's going deep, he's probably pitching well for us, and we're probably in the game. We had some other guys that we would have thrown today. It's an elimination game so you have to have everybody ready.
“It was probably more wishful thinking on my part, but I wanted him to pitch deep into the game. Now that he has, that's good. We've got plenty of fresh arms, and we're going to need them to keep fighting out here.”