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Tar Heel time has arrived

Eddy Landreth

By Eddy Landreth
Staff Writer

This is the time of year the Carolina baseball team is at its best.

On Friday, it will host a four-team regional, with the eventual winner advancing to a best-of-three series next week. The winner of that series will move on to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

UNC was named sixth of the eight national seeds. This seeding affects who will play whom in Omaha. Generally, it also means if you win your first weekend at home, you will be host to a Super Regional.

The Tar Heels (44-14) have been to the CWS five of the last six seasons, and this year their pitching is good enough to carry them back. They have won 15 of their past 16 games. They finished first in the Coastal Division of the ACC.

Now the new season begins: the NCAA baseball tournament.

East Carolina (35-22-1) is the second seed at the Chapel Hill regional. The Pirates will play three-seed St. John’s (37-21) in the first game on Friday at 1 p.m.

Top-seeded Carolina will play Ivy League champion Cornell (31-15-1) at 6 p.m. on Friday.

Last season Stanford came to Chapel Hill for the Super Regional and the Tar Heels defeated them in two games to return to Omaha.

Coach Mike Fox has filled UNC’s Boshamer Stadium with a powerhouse program.

“We talk about it all year,” said Carolina’s top pitcher, Kent Emanuel, who pitched a complete-game shutout against Texas in Omaha a year ago. “This is the best part of the year. We’re out of class. We’re starting the postseason, and the games really mean a lot.”

UNC defeated St. John’s earlier this year, 8-4, on Feb. 28. Carolina defeated East Carolina in Chapel Hill on April 25. The Tar Heels won that game 1-0 in the bottom of the 10th inning.

Since that East Carolina game, the Tar Heels have been scoring more runs. This is not a great offensive team, although it has days when it explodes to score double-digit runs.

What this group has done is evolve into an entirely different squad since that game against East Carolina.

“Probably this year, more so than any year, we really feel like we’re playing our best ball right now,” senior catcher Jacob Stallings said. “We’re always going to pitch well, but offensively and defensively we’re playing really well.”

The strength of this team, however, is clearly defense and pitching. Carolina is third in the nation in team earned run average, at 2.61.

Unlike the past, when the Tar Heels had two or three star pitchers who started and an excellent closer, this team is loaded with quality depth.

UNC shut out two of its three opponents in the ACC Tournament, holding N.C. State to no runs in 14 innings.

“We have pitched unbelievably well,” Fox said. “I’ve never had a team that has had a stretch like this, where we have just pitched as such a high level.”

Emanuel is the leader with an 8-4 record, a 2.03 ERA and 99 strikeouts to just 22 walks. His record would be better, but the Tar Heels struggled to score during many of his starts.

Emanuel said the depth of quality talent on the pitching staff is the backbone of the team.

“From the beginning of the year we knew that was going to be one of our strengths,” Emanuel said. “If we have a starter taken out in the first inning, we still feel confident we’re going to go win that game.”

UNC beat East Carolina in back-to-back games in the 2009 Super Regional in Chapel Hill to advance to the College World Series. The Pirates play in Chapel Hill each year, so they will not be awed in any way by Carolina.

“They are going to come in here extremely ready,” Fox said, “So I think it’s a tough regional for us. We’re going to have to play well.”

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