Best vs. hottest: Pack hosts Heels in No. 6-No. 1 baseball showdown
North Carolina-N.C. State is always a big rivalry. This weekend it becomes ever bigger, pitting the nation’s best team against the nation’s hottest team.
The top-ranked Tar Heels (40-3) are only the ninth team in NCAA history with at least 40 wins in their first 43 games, while the sixth-ranked Wolfpack (33-10) owns the nation’s longest active winning streak at 15 games.
The two teams will square off at N.C. State’s Doak Field at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. All three games are sold out, and the finale will be televised live on ESPNU.
“I don’t think State-Carolina ever needs any more hype, because it’s such a good rivalry in every sport, but this does add a little bit to it,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “Like somebody said, you guys have been on a collision course for quite a while… and at the end of April, here we are.”
UNC will start ace Kent Emanuel (8-1, 1.82) in the opener against Ryan Wilkins (5-1, 3.16), Benton Moss (7-0, 2.81) Saturday against 2012 ACC pitcher of the year Carlos Rodon (4-2, 4.48) of State, and Hobbs Johnson (2-0, 2.45) will open for UNC Sunday against Brad Stone (2-1, 6.23).
Rodon and Moss squared off the last time these teams faced — in pool play in last year’s ACC Tournament at Greensboro. Rodon threw nine shutout innings but the Tar Heels won 4-0 in 12 innings in front of 10,229, the largest crowd ever to watch a college baseball game in the state.
The crowd may be slightly smaller at Doak (capacity about 2,500), but no less passionate.
“My freshman year it was definitely one of the most intense crowds we had, as far as kind of getting on you, and I like playing in that kind of environment,” Emanuel said.
N.C. State actually edged UNC for overall champion in the ACC preseason coaches poll. But while the Tar Heels have excelled all season, the Wolfpack lost 5 of 6 last month without leadoff hitter Trea Turner, who is hitting .438 and scoring 1.44 runs a game. N.C. State is 17-1 since he returned from an ankle injury late last month.
The Tar Heels are led by Colin Moran, who is hitting .395 and has more home runs (10) than strikeouts (eight). The junior third baseman is aiming to be the fourth player in NCAA history to lead the nation in runs scored and RBI — he leads in both categories.
Despite the emotions of a big rivalry, first baseman Cody Stubbs said the Tar Heels can’t approach the weekend any differently.
“You can’t get too hyped up,” Stubbs said. “It’s baseball, it’s not football. You can’t run out there and tackle somebody. Just stay calm and keep playing the baseball we’ve been playing.”
NOTES — UNC is two games up on Virginia in the Coastal Division, while N.C. State leads the Atlantic Division by one game over both Florida State and Clemson. … That attendance number last year in Greensboro didn’t include Fox, who was serving a one-game suspension after being ejected from UNC’s previous contest. “I’m going to try to attend all three games (this weekend), if I can,” Fox joked. “That would be nice.” … Today, for the first time in 281 meetings, both N.C. State and UNC are ranked in the national top 10.