3 things: Regional trends to watch
1. Mike Fox said during Monday night’s radio show with Jones Angell that he has not yet decided on a starter for Friday’s regional opener against fourth seed Cornell. The Big Red is not particularly right-hand or left-hand dominant, as their top eight hitters are split equally between righties and lefties.
If past performance is any indicator, Kent Emanuel is very likely to start on Saturday in what often is the swing game of a regional. The Tar Heels have used their top starter on Saturday in four of the five previous regionals they have hosted. The only exception came in 2007, when Fox wanted strike-throwing and steady Robert Woodard against a tough Jacksonville squad in the opener.
Last season, the Tar Heels used number-two starter Emanuel in the regional opener. However, their rotation is deeper this year than it was last year, so it wouldn’t be overwhelmingly surprising to see either typical Saturday pitcher Benton Moss or Sunday starter Hobbs Johnson get the nod on Friday.
2. The first two games in a regional are critical. Since the Tar Heels began hosting regularly in 2006, regional teams that have started 2-0 have advanced to the next round 78.1% of the time (75 times out of 96 squads that started 2-0). The reason is simple: losing either of the first two games forces a team to play an extra game to win its way through the loser’s bracket. Most college clubs aren’t equipped with that kind of pitching depth, especially against the tougher opponents faced in regional play.
Interestingly, if there are two teams built to survive with pitching depth, they might both be in the Chapel Hill Regional, as both Carolina and East Carolina have quality staffs. The Pirates have four regular starters with sub-3.70 ERAs. The Tar Heel team ERA, meanwhile, is a miniscule 2.54, good for third best in the country. If it stays below 3.00, it would be just the third season since 1980 that Carolina has been sub-3.00.
3. A fast start favors the Tar Heels. Carolina is outscoring opponents 45-13 in the first inning and 61-29 in the second frame, for a combined margin of 106-42 in the first two innings. For the season, those are Carolina’s two biggest offensive innings by a healthy margin.
Fox attributes some of the quick starts to the influence of leadoff man Chaz Frank, who seems to relish the opportunity to set the tone early in important games.
“You have to give a lot of the credit to Chaz,” the head coach said. “He loves getting in there against a tough pitcher and showing them that we’re not going to back down.”
Frank, who has a season-long on-base percentage of .420, has been even better lately. The junior has reached base in 10 of his last 17 first inning at-bats, helping set the tone for a Tar Heel offense that has come back to life.