UNC, ranked No. 9 in Baseball America’s preseason poll, returns several key ingredients of its 2011 College World Series run, the program’s fifth in six years. Moran, a lefthander from Rye, N.Y., earned BA Freshman of the Year honors after batting .335 with a .540 slugging percentage, a team-high nine home runs and an ACC-best 71 RBI last season. Emanuel, a lefthander from Woodstock, Ga., joined his teammate on BA’s All-Freshman First-Team after posting a 9-1 record with a 2.33 ERA.
A handful of veteran upperclassmen comprise the critical leadership roles that help define a Mike Fox team – senior catcher Jacob Stallings, junior shortstop Tommy Coyle, junior centerfielder Chaz Frank and junior closer Michael Morin to name several – but this UNC roster boasts approximately two dozen underclassmen and several of the rookies will be called upon to play and play early.
“We’re going to rely on probably five or six of our freshmen to have a chance to get on the field and play,” Fox told reporters during UNC’s media day on Tuesday. “We’ll see how they do. They’re untested when the lights come on and the scoreboard comes on. We like what we’ve seen so far, but it’s just practice, so the jury is obviously still going to be out.”
Fox referenced Moran hitting in the eight hole on opening day as a freshman, but rookies Chris O’Brien and Benton Moss won’t have that type of protection this weekend against Xavier as both will earn their first career starts on the mound.
Emanuel will start as expected on Friday night, but O’Brien, a lefthander from Drexel Hill, Pa., will get the nod on Saturday and Moss, a right-hander from Enfield, N.C., will take the mound on Sunday.
“[O’Brien was] not very highly recruited, which is the way a lot of this is working out now,” Fox said. “He was a fairly late commit for us, but our assistant coaches saw him and really liked him. He’s a strike thrower and has a really good changeup and that helps him to get into hitters, of course. He’s very mature for his age…
“We’ve probably had him on the mound in three or four scrimmages this preseason and I don’t remember him walking a batter. We like those strike throwers.”
Coyle pointed to O’Brien’s maturation and improved strength since the fall as being the primary factors in his ascension to the starting lineup.
Moss, a Morehead Scholar, has turned heads since arriving on campus last summer with his cerebral approach on the mound, drawing comparisons to Emanuel’s ability at a young age in knowing how to approach batters.
`We want to run those young guys out there because they’ve pitched the best for us and they deserve it and it does keep a lot of our veterans in the bullpen,” Fox said.
Freshmen will also be counted on in the field. Mike Zolk and Shell McCain are battling for Coyle’s former position at second base, although Zolk is expected to get the start against Xavier on Friday.
Senior rightfielder Seth Baldwin is sitting out the 2012 season due to academics, leaving a considerable hole in the outfield. Frank will man centerfield and freshman Michael Russell has locked down one of the other positions, but rookie Adam Griffin’s ankle fracture has opened the door for competition at the final spot. Sophomores Brian Holberton and Parks Jordan are reportedly the top candidates.
“We’ll be surprised – hopefully they will all be good surprises – by how our young guys are playing,” Fox said.
There is one more fielding position that will go to a newcomer, but he’s a freshman only in familiarity, not eligibility. Junior college transfer Cody Stubbs was drafted in the 14th round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals after starting his college career at Tennessee, but elected to enroll at North Carolina instead. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder will inject immediate firepower into the batting lineup and will fill the void left by Jesse Wierzbicki at first base.
“He’s definitely a dangerous hitter,” Coyle said of Stubbs. “He’s a big guy – he’s got a lot of power, good pop in his bat. He puts his bat on the ball, too. He moves the ball and hits it with some power. He’s a good first baseman – he’s solid over there.”
The Tar Heels have plenty of big names and experience dotting their lineup, but a sixth trip to Omaha in seven years will be dependent upon the contributions of the new names on the roster.