USC Gamecocks Baseball

Was UNC coach Fox right to use weekend starters?

North Carolina pitchers came to coach Mike Fox, he said Tuesday morning, and told him they were ready.

“All these guys come to us, obviously, and say, ‘I’ve got an inning,’” Fox said. “Or, ‘I’ve got a batter.’ And that’s what some of them got. So they’re competitors. They want to go out.”

After the best regular season in school history, and after winning the ACC tournament last week, the Tar Heels on Monday night and Tuesday morning were faced with the reality that their season could end at any moment. UNC eventually defeated Florida Atlantic in 13 innings – a 12-11 victory that will be remembered by people who watched it as one of the wildest and craziest they’d ever seen.

Amid all the drama, the Tar Heels used seven pitchers. Chris Munnelly, the team’s No. 4 starting pitcher, started the game. By the end of it, Fox had used all three of his team’s weekend starters: Kent Emanuel, Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson.

Emanuel relieved Trent Thornton, the Heels’ closer, in the eighth inning. With two on and nobody out, Emanuel retired the first three batters he faced. In the ninth inning, he allowed a lead-off home run to Corey Keller, and the Owls’ rally had begun. Emanuel surrendered another run before leaving with the bases loaded.

You know what happened next: Moss entered the game and allowed a grand slam to the first batter he faced, Tyler Rocklein. That gave the Owls an 8-6 lead, and forced UNC to come back in the bottom half of the inning.

It’s fair to question whether Emanuel and Moss should have been in the game. Emanuel started UNC’s 8-5 victory against Towson on Saturday and threw 124 pitches. He was in control for the great majority of that game until allowing three runs in the eighth inning, when he appeared to tire.

Overall, Emanuel of late hasn’t been the dominant force he was earlier in the season. But it’s important to note, too, that UNC in April and May played significantly more difficult competition than it did in February and March. Understanding that, Emanuel’s relative struggles are more understandable.

And what about Moss? He wasn’t sharp in his lone start in the ACC tournament, against Clemson, and he was erratic again in his only start in the regional, which came Friday night. Moss pitched into the fifth inning before leaving. He allowed six hits and three runs, all earned.

It’s not difficult to understand why Fox went back to Emanuel and Moss on Monday night, though. Both have excelled for long stretches this season. Emanuel is the ACC Pitcher of the Year. Moss has been a dependable No. 2 starter in the weekend rotation.

The strategy clearly didn’t work out against FAU, though. After getting out of the eighth, Emanuel labored in the ninth. He recorded five outs and left after having thrown 51 pitches – the most of any of UNC’s seven pitchers on Monday night. Moss faced just two batters and threw five pitches, one of which landed over the left field fence.

Fox afterward defended his use of his weekend starters.

“I’ll stand by our reputation,” Fox said. “I don’t think we put any of them at risk.”

Pitch counts receive a lot of attention these days, and rightfully so given the prevalence of arm injuries. Emanuel, though, appeared to be plenty fresh enough when he entered the game with two on and nobody out in the eighth inning. He lost control in the ninth, but we’ll never know if that was due to fatigue or simply an inability to locate pitches, which is something Emanuel has struggled with of late even on full rest.

Regardless, Fox’s strategy was clear enough: Trust the pitchers who were most responsible for leading UNC to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. They told Fox they were ready, and he believed them. And after their overall success since February, it’s not difficult to understand why.