Heels, Pack get down to business
North Carolina and N.C. State have played each other 284 times. Until recently, only the local baseball community seemed to notice.
The rivalry gained greater prominence during the past two ACC Tournaments, when record crowds for a college baseball game in the state — 10,229 a year ago in Greensboro and then 11,392 in May at Durham Bulls Athletic Park — saw UNC win in extra innings. But even those games were only televised regionally.
Now comes the biggest matchup in the history of the series, and there’s no basketball game to serve as a distraction. The Tar Heels and the Wolfpack play today (3 p.m., ESPN2) in front of a national audience at the sport’s greatest stage, the College World Series.
“Before the Greensboro deal, before the Durham thing, it was always good,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “It was always intense. A lot of times, we had three really great games here, but basketball’s season is going on so nobody’s paying a whole lot of attention.”
There’s nothing overshadowing the game now.
“It was almost like it was designed to head down this path,” Fox said. “It’s really good for our league, it’s good for both programs, and it’s good for (the Triangle) area.”
The stakes are high for both teams. No. 1 national seed UNC (57-10), which is in Omaha for the sixth time in eight years, still is seeking its first national championship.
Unseeded N.C. State (49-14) is here for the first time since 1968, when it made its only other appearance, and is looking to become a marquee program.
UNC junior Kent Emanuel (11-3, 2.93) and Wolfpack sophomore Carlos Rodon (9-2, 3.19) will be starting today, marking the first time that the staff aces will pitch against each other.
Emanuel and Rodon both won their starts in Raleigh during the regular-season series. With a spot in the ACC Tournament final on the line, the Tar Heels then won the rubber match 2-1 in 18 innings, the longest game in the UNC and ACC Tournament history.
Emanuel won the ACC pitcher of the year award and pitched a four-hitter in his only previous start in Omaha, in an elimination game two years ago against Texas. The third-round pick has struggled in the NCAA Tournament this year, giving up 14 runs and 18 hits in 12.1 innings but recorded his first career save to clinch a 5-4 super regional win over South Carolina.
“He's got command of three big-time pitches,” Avent said. “That changeup can really keep you off balance at times and next thing you know you get it in your head and he busts that fastball in and you just sit there and freeze. He's smart, he's competitive, and holds runners very well.”
Emanuel isn’t the only one with postseason success. Rodon has a 1.17 ERA in 46 postseason innings, with 11 walks and 54 strikeouts. He has been s even more impressive in four starts against UNC — an 0.84 ERA in 32.1 innings, with 10 walks and 43 strikeouts — and the sophomore lefty became stronger as this season went on.
“I think he's pitched as well, probably, down the stretch as at any time in his career,” Fox said. “Just completely under control. When he's got command of his fastball and that breaking ball, he's as good as I've seen in all my time in college baseball.
"He just continues to get better and better, and it's an extremely difficult task facing him.”
Still, the Wolfpack hasn’t provided much run support — Rodon has just one win in six postseason starts and one win against UNC.
Besides the usual emotions involved in the first-ever tournament meeting between the teams, there also is the importance of claiming the opening game in this double-elimination format. The winner of today’s contest will be two wins away from the championship series, while the loser will have to win four games in five days to make it to the finals.
UNC won its first game en route to its two championship series appearances, in 2006 and 2007. But they lost the openers in their past two visits, in 2009 and 2011, and finished a combined 2-4.
On Friday, Fox and Avent were seated next to each other during the traditional coaches’ news conference, providing for some light-hearted banter between the two.
“Could you all have sat Elliott and I any closer together?” Fox said jokingly. “We're touching knees, and by the end of this we're going to be holding hands.”
Tournament organizers certainly were going to take advantage of two nearby schools meeting in such an important game. After years of heated competition, the two programs now will be playing in front of its biggest audience.
“It's a great rivalry,” Avent said. “It's intense, but I mean, it's not hated. It's not as hated as people think. The games have been so good, and they've been clean games, and both teams can really, really play. It's a huge competition.”