No. 1 Tar Heels host rebuilding Blue Devils in Chapel Hill
Rival programs at far different levels of development get together for a three-game series beginning today.
North Carolina (36-2, 15-2 in ACC) owns the nation’s No. 1 ranking and harbors serious national championship aspirations.
Duke (22-17, 8-10), under first-year coach Chris Pollard, has surpassed last year’s modest win total and seeks to simply qualify for the ACC Tournament for just the second time in the last eight seasons.
It’s under those circumstances the teams meet at Boshamer Stadium for games at 3 p.m. today, 6 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Even though he oversees a roster that’s cranked out win after win this season, UNC coach Mike Fox said he’s noticed the improvement up the road at Duke.
“They’ve got three starting pitchers who have all pitched in this league,” Fox said, “and I think teams and players all get better through experience. Any time you have a new staff, they instill some new principles and it looks like the kids at Duke have bought into all that.”
Today’s first game of the three-game series was moved to 3 p.m. start (from the originally scheduled 7 p.m.) due to the forecast for heavy thunderstorms in the area tonight.
UNC will use left-hander Kent Emanuel (7-1, 1.92 ERA) in today’s game with Duke starting fellow portsider Trent Swart (4-2, 2.59 ERA).
Swart has shown he can stop good hitting teams this season. On April 5, he threw eight scoreless innings as the Blue Devils beat No. 15-ranked Georgia Tech 2-0. That helped Duke take two of three games from the Yellow Jackets that weekend.
But last Friday night, No. 7 Florida State roughed up Swart in a 16-2 Seminoles win at Tallahassee, Fla. Swart allowed eight earned runs on 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings.
Pollard said Swart’s biggest problem was getting behind in counts, which made things easier for an already good Florida State team.
“We need to get back to pitching ahead,” Pollard said. “We need to own the first pitch of every at bat, especially as good as Carolina is offensively. We got behind. It seemed like every time you looked up we were pitching in a 3-1 count.”
More of that could make for a long weekend in Chapel Hill. UNC averages 9.07 runs per game, tops in the ACC, and has a team batting average of .318. Only Georgia Tech’s .321 team batting average is better among ACC teams.
“We don’t really focus on their weaknesses as much as our strengths,” Swart said. “We want to pitch to our strengths because that’s when you are going to be more confident with your stuff. That’s a huge thing for us going into this weekend is not focusing so much on them being such a good lineup but focusing on that we are a good staff and we can get it done if we focus on our pitches.”
The pitching matchups for the rest of the weekend have UNC throwing righthander Benton Moss (6-0, 3.00 ERA) against Duke righty Drew Van Orden (2-4, 4.84 ERA) on Saturday before UNC lefty Hobbs Johnson (1-0, 2.95 ERA) pitches Sunday against Duke righty Robert Huber (5-3, 3.49 ERA).
While UNC looks to protect its No. 1 national ranking, Duke seeks a win or two to aid its push for the ACC Tournament. Under league rules, only eight teams qualify. The top two teams in each division make it plus the teams with the next best four records, regardless of division.
Duke and Miami, both 8-10, are tied for seventh heading into this weekend’s play. Virginia Tech, at 7-11 in the ACC, is just behind them at No. 9.
Each team has 12 ACC games left to play before the ACC Tournament at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park May 22-26.
Meanwhile, UNC is rolling with a confidence that comes from piling up wins in an impressive fashion.
“We’ve been able to just win even when we haven’t really played our best,” Fox said, “and in different types of games, pitching duals and offensive games. We’ve been a little lucky — we’ve been fortunate where we’ve gotten a play here or a play there — and now our team expects to win, which is a great trait for a team to have.