By reinserting freshman Trent Thornton into the starting rotation in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over LSU, UNC negated the severity of the College World Series losers’ bracket by holding onto a pair of weekend starters and a veteran senior with 40 career starts in Chris Munnelly.
Despite some postseason struggles by its weekend rotation, UNC’s pitching staff (2.78 ERA, 14th nationally) won’t be plagued by fatigue in Omaha, which is often the culprit for teams trying to fight their way out of the losers’ bracket.
ACC Pitcher of the Year Kent Emanuel would also be available to pitch again on four or five days rest if UNC extends its season to Friday or Saturday.
While confidence in Saturday starter Benton Moss (14 ER over his last 18.0 IP) appears to have faded, Johnson (4-1, 2.62 ERA) will have to shake off his worst outing of the season (5 ER, 5 hits in 1.2 IP vs. South Carolina) after rolling through April and May.
UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters on Wednesday the key for Johnson is to keep his pitch count down by avoiding costly walks. The junior southpaw leads the team with 49 walks.
“Hobbs is going to walk a couple of guys, that’s just who he is,” UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said. “But the thing about Hobbs is that he can strike out the next two.”
Johnson is nearly averaging a strikeout per inning pitched (72 in 79 IP). The Rocky Mount, N.C. product tied a season-high with nine strikeouts in his last outing against N.C. State in the ACC Tournament on May 25. He allowed six hits and one earned run in 5.1 innings in the 2-1 victory.
Forbes indicated that Johnson has improved his off-speed command, especially with his changeup and slider. His ability to pitch effectively to both right-handers and left-handers has made him difficult to hit. His power doesn’t hurt, either.
“He’s got to control his fastball,” Forbes said. “He’s a power pitcher. He’s going to be anywhere from 89-93, up to 94 lately. He pitches up in the zone some early on purpose, which in this park would be really good because you can get so many fly balls.”
Forbes complimented UCLA for utilizing that same approach in winning its first two games at TD Ameritrade Park by a score of 2-1. The Bruins forced 20 fly outs in those victories.
While the dimensions of TD Ameritrade Park are the same as the old Rosenblatt Stadium – 335 down the lines, 375 in the power alleys, 408 to center – the wind tends to blow in, making the park play bigger. Only two home runs have been hit in eight CWS games thus far, including Brian Holberton’s first inning blast over the right field wall on Tuesday.
The size of the park paired with the BBCOR bats allows for pitching adjustments, although Forbes stressed batters’ strengths still take precedence.
“You get certain guys that may have gap power or a little bit of home run power and you can challenge them a little bit more,” Forbes said. “You just have to be smart right now with guys that are hot and can hit the ball down the line, pull hitters. If you’re facing a guy like Holbie, you’ve got to be careful because he’s got the strength to get it up and get it out in the gap or down the line.”
The key, according to Fox, is forcing batters to swing the bat.
“The walks are a death sentence out here because you want guys to hit,” Fox said.
That will be a critical aspect to watch early in Johnson’s start against a N.C. State batting order that has walked 254 times this season. If Johnson struggles for a second straight start, there are plenty of options at Forbes’ disposal.
“Really, everybody’s available to help us win tomorrow,” Forbes said. “Kent’s a reliever. I told him, ‘You’re a reliever until I tell you you’re a starter.’”
Chris McCue has assumed closer duties with Thornton’s move into a starting role, although Forbes confirmed that Thornton would be available in relief on three days rest if North Carolina wins its next two games to force a bracket finale against UCLA on Saturday night.