Trailing 2-0, Virginia Tech’s Chad Pinder stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the fifth. The shortstop was a big reason the Hokies were playing in the championship game, as his eight RBIs in 11 at-bats in Durham had fueled his team’s 3-0 run through Pool B.
Standing between Pinder and a potential game-changing swing of the bat was the physically imposing yet woefully green Taylore Cherry, a 6-foot-8, 270-pound freshman with 3.1 innings and five appearances on his resume.
Despite the inversed David and Goliath setup, however, Cherry battled through 12 pitches and a full count to force an inning-ending ground out with a fastball.
“When it got to 3-2, all I was thinking was getting the ball over the plate,” Cherry said, adding that all but 10 of his 90 pitches were fastballs. “… Not trying to strike him out, but just trying to beat him, trying to get a ground ball.”
That plate appearance served as a microcosm for UNC's efforts on the mound all week long at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Time and time again, a Tar Heel pitcher, regardless of the number on the back of his jersey, befuddled and frustrated his opponent in the batter's box.
Pinder wasn’t quite sure why the Hokies’ bats struggled so much against the freshman righty.
“He was maybe a little deceptive with his slow delivery,” Pinder said. “It jumped out of his hand a little bit. He did a great job today of getting ahead of us and staying ahead of us and keeping us off balance.”
UNC head coach Mike Fox pointed to preparation in explaining Cherry’s improbable performance.
“You have to set a roster for this tournament, of course, and the reason he was on the roster to begin was because he’s worked hard and he’s prepared,” Fox said. “We talk about that – you never know when your moment is going to be.”
Cherry made the tournament roster over a pair of arms that pitched in the NCAA Tournament last season – junior Shane Taylor and sophomore Luis Paula.
If there was a theme during this week’s ACC Tournament, it was North Carolina’s ability on the mound to handle every situation.
Fox has built his program on pitching and defense, and while the latter sputtered at times, a stocked cupboard in the bullpen allowed UNC to play 13 more innings than Virginia Tech and still have enough left to deliver a six-hit, one-run effort in the title game.
The Tar Heels have rolled out arguably the nation’s top starting rotation over the past two seasons, as evidenced by Kent Emanuel’s complete game shutout of Miami on Thursday. Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson were also effective in their starts, combining to allowing six earned runs on 14 hits in 10.2 innings.
Emanuel and Moss were hit hard in regular season starts against the Hokies, giving up six earned runs each and 23 combined hits. Cherry held the Hokies to one earned run on five hits in 5.0 innings on Sunday. Trevor Kelley closed up shop by allowing one hit in four innings of work.
Even more impressive is the fact that UNC’s relief pitching has surpassed its starters’ quality of play over the last three games. Seven relievers – led by dominant performances by Reilly Hovis and Trent Thornton – combined to allow just one earned run on eight hits over 25.1 innings.
Fox indicated that he only had four pitchers available for Sunday – Cherry, Kelley, Mason McCullough and Tate Parrish – with Chris Munnelly offering to pitch, if needed.
He wasn’t needed.
“We pitched well overall in this tournament, which you have to,” Fox said. “Our bullpen certainly was the story. They’ve been good for us all year long. They really have. I think they were fresh; they were ready and very, very aggressive. They attacked the strike zone and trusted in our defense a little bit. They all were very good.”
That level of pitching could serve as a critical insurance policy should UNC fall into the losers’ bracket of either next week’s NCAA regional or later in June at the College World Series in Omaha.