Another bad start sinks UNC

Jun. 09, 2013 @ 09:25 PM

CHAPEL HILL – The sterling starting pitching that carried North Carolina to the NCAA Tournament’s top seed has hit a rough patch at the season’s most important time.

Benton Moss is charged with turning that around once again and helping the Tar Heels return to the College World Series.

In the first two games of UNC’s NCAA Tournament super regional series with South Carolina, starters Kent Emanuel and Hobbs Johnson have yet to last through the third inning. Johnson gave up five hits and five runs in less than two innings of work on Sunday as South Carolina won 8-0 at Boshamer Stadium to even up the best-of-three series at 1-1.

“It was frustrating,” Johnson said “That's probably the hardest I've been hit in my career, and it just goes to them being a good-hitting team. They make you play when you leave the ball, that's for sure.”

It’s becoming a disturbing trend for the Tar Heels. UNC’s starting pitchers have now allowed 24 earned runs in 24 NCAA Tournament innings this season. Opponents have collected 31 hits.

Johnson threw 53 pitches in his 1 2/3 innings of work on Sunday. He walked three, including two in the second inning when the Gamecocks clubbed him for five runs.

Emanuel has struggled throughout the NCAA Tournament. Saturday’s start against South Carolina lasted only 2 1/3 innings, which the Gamecocks used to score four runs on seven hits. Emanuel, who was 11-3 with a 2.70 ERA prior to Saturday, has now allowed 14 runs in 11 2/3 innings during this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Johnson entered Sunday’s game after carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning in last Sunday’s regional game against Florida Atlantic.

Moss, 8-1 with a 3.78 ERA, has needed plenty of bullpen help himself over the last month. The last time he pitched into the seventh inning was a May 11 win over Georgia Tech when he allowed two hits over eight shutout innings.

Since then, he’s allowed 23 hits and 13 runs (all earned) over 15 2/3 innings.

Against Canisius in last weekend’s regional at Boshamer Stadium, Moss gave up six hits and three runs over 4 1/3 innings while issuing three walks. He also gave up a home run, the ninth-inning grand slam that nearly ended UNC’s season, in a five-pitch relief appearance last Monday against Florida Atlantic.

As UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes pointed out, Moss’ pitching style isn’t known for allowing him to go deep into games. His reliance on the strikeout means he needs more pitches to get outs, which means the bullpen is called up for late-inning work.

The silver lining to Sunday’s lopsided loss to South Carolina is that UNC didn’t use its top relievers – Trent Thornton and Chris Munnelly and Chris McCue.

Forbes feels that group, led by Moss, is capable of getting the job done against the Gamecocks today.

“I think (Moss) threw the ball pretty well in the ACC Tournament against Clemson,” Forbes said. “Obviously he didn’t throw it well in the regional and in that game when he gave up the home run. If he strikes that guy out, everyone would say ‘Well, Benton’s going.’ But he didn’t. But Benton has been good all year.”

Johnson and Emanuel had been good all year, too, before hitting a rough patch against South Carolina. The Tar Heels look for Moss to set things right for the group.

“It’s a history with our starters,” Fox said. “We’ve watched them start 14-15 games (each) this year and in previous years and pitch good games against good teams in our league. We’ve watched them pitch well at home and on the road. You have to go back to that. You go back to the well and the things you’ve seen them do. You keep reminding them of that. That’s what we’ll do.”