Tar Heels hope Russell can return for baseball opener Friday

May. 29, 2014 @ 06:06 PM

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina’s pitching rotation is set but its lineup is far from certain.

UNC coach Mike Fox said ace Trent Thornton will start when the Tar Heels open play Friday in the Gainesville Regional against Long Beach State (1 p.m., ESPN3.com), while top hitter Michael Russell remains day-to-day with a sore back.

No. 2 overall seed Florida lurks in the region, but Fox said there wasn’t much discussion about saving Thornton (7-3, 2.24) for a possible showdown with the host Gators and using another pitcher to open the regional.

Saturday starter Benton Moss (4-2, 3.33) would start the second game in the double-elimination regional, while Sunday starter Zac Gallen (5-4, 4.33) will start the third game.

“For us, we think all three of our starters have been throwing really well,” Fox said. “There’s all kinds of debate about which game’s most important and who needs to throw where and when, but we’ve got a guy who arguably has been one of our best pitchers here the last two years and has been on the big stage.”

Thornton, a sophomore from Charlotte, is a second-team all-ACC selection who won an elimination game at the College World Series last year.

Friday’s result may also depend on the status of Russell, the second-team all-ACC shortstop who leads the team in batting average (.345), on-base percentage (.430) and slugging percentage (.505).

In UNC’s three pool play games at the ACC Tournament, Russell played three innings in the field before leaving the game Wednesday against Florida State, sat out entirely on Friday against Virginia and was the designated hitter on Saturday against Maryland.

“Really, he needs to rest probably a month or two and it will heal,” Fox said. “So it’s going to be a game day decision about first of all whether he can play, and second of all whether he can play defense. The trainers have done all they can do and he’s rested. He’s feeling better. It looks like he’s moving a little bit better. He’s not going to be 100 percent, but we’ll make that decision Friday morning.”

Jordan High graduate Alex Raburn (.259/.363/.329) would be the shortstop if Russell can’t play in the field.

Runs may be at a premium for the Tar Heels (34-25) and Long Beach State (32-24) — the Dirtbags have played 20 games in which both teams combined for five runs or fewer. Long Beach State hasn’t hit a home run since March 29, but its 2.91 ERA is the program’s lowest since 2005 and includes a school-record 10 shutouts, while its .977 fielding percentage is the second-best mark in school history.

“They’re very similar to us,” Fox said. “They manufacture runs and depend on pitching and defense to win.”

Florida (40-21) will face College of Charleston (41-17) Friday at 7 p.m. Friday’s losers will play an elimination game Saturday at 1 p.m., which will be followed by a winner’s bracket game at 7 p.m.