Emanuel, a preseason All-America that entered the 2013 season with the sixth-lowest career ERA in school history, notched five strikeouts and allowed just four singles against the Pirates.
“I’ve not seen that in all of my years of coaching,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said. “An opening day complete game shutout is incredible.”
Senior centerfielder Chaz Frank didn’t seem quite as surprised.
“Kent’s Kent,” Frank said. “You expect that out of Kent. He’s an All-American for a reason. He’s just a competitor out there.”
Emanuel spent the bulk of the afternoon engaged in a pitching duel with Jon Prosinski (3 hits, ER) before the Seton Hall senior exited after the seventh inning. North Carolina had scored its lone run on a Frank sacrifice fly in the sixth.
When the ninth inning rolled around, Emanuel walked to the opposite end of the bench from where Fox and assistant coaches Scott Forbes and Scott Jackson discussed whether or not to leave the junior lefty in the game.
Fox told reporters the last time he made the decision to pull Emanuel after eight innings was against St. John’s in the NCAA Tournament Regional last May with UNC holding a 4-2 lead. The Red Storm scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth for a win that set up their Regional title.
Fox yielded his decision-making power to Forbes and Jackson, who elected to stick with Emanuel. It proved to be a smart choice.
After a single and an ensuing error by first baseman Cody Stubbs, Pirates second baseman Mike Genovese’s sacrifice bunt gave shortstop Giuseppe Papaccio an opportunity with runners on second and third with one out.
Emanuel’s veteran confidence and immense talent would define the next two at-bats. The Woodstock, Ga. native was content to attack the outside edge of the plate, knowing that first base was open and that the next batter, Sal Annunziata, had already struck out twice.
After working back to 2-1, Forbes called a strike inside to even the count. Emanuel, however, wanted to save that pitch for the strikeout, so he threw a changeup away for the second strike. The fastball sent Papaccio back to the dugout.
Emanuel secured the victory with a jumping grab of Annunziata’s chopper back to the mound before throwing to Stubbs for the final out.
“We don’t have any other pitcher that makes that play to end the game,” Fox said. “… He’s probably the best fielding pitcher I’ve ever coached.”
Strong outings from the starters became the norm for the Tar Heels in 2012 and was expected this season with UNC’s entire weekend rotation returning. Friday’s performance was far too dominant for anyone to have forecasted, although it served to reinforce just how good this pitching staff can be this spring and summer.
Emanuel earned third-team All-America honors last season and yet his 1.96 ERA ranked third in the starting rotation. Saturday starter Benton Moss (1.94) and Sunday starter Hobbs Johnson (1.56 ERA) combined for a 14-3 record after solidifying the rotation last spring.
While the losses of closer Michael Morin and reliever R.C. Orlan are significant, UNC’s bullpen appears to be well equipped to handle the task of replacing those high-powered arms. The Tar Heels return 60 of their 62 starts from 2012, as well as a collection of veteran hurlers at Forbes’ disposal.
And while there will be plenty more opportunities for standout pitching performances in 2013, Emanuel may have already set the bar too high on opening day.
Not that he believes that. If anything, Emanuel expects better outings as June approaches.
“Throughout the majority of the game, I felt like I was there but I was just off enough to where I’d get a groundout instead of a strikeout,” Emanuel said. “Hopefully later in the season that’s something that will sharpen up.”
That bodes well for the Tar Heels and poorly for everyone else.