Experience is the Equalizer
The main difference between the two squads set up for the Fall World Series was apparent from the get-go.
"Experience," head coach Mike Fox said. "I think one thing we looked at on the rosters is that one team had a lot more freshmen on it than the other. The Navy team had one freshman playing defense for them. The other team had five and experience comes out when the games get serious."
One of the main advantages of this experience came into play at the plate. The Navy team walked 26 times during the series, compared to 16 for the Blue. The 27-run differential of 27 runs was surprising when you consider that the coaching staff considered the Blue team to be a more talented squad, according to Fox, based on the 14-15 scrimmages held before the start of the Fall World Series.
"We all know how to play the game and that is not to say the Blue team didn't but we have been around how our coaches want us to play the game and we know exactly what we need to do," sophomore Michael Massardo said. "I know when I was a freshman my Fall World Series I did terrible. I went up there swinging away with no approach whatsoever and Kent Emanuel is on the mound blowing balls by me."
The Navy team was composed throughout and jumped out early on the Blue team, scoring 10 runs in the first inning during the series -- putting additional pressure on the freshmen batters.
Paula Performs, Again
"It is scary when he can command all of his pitches," Massardo said of the righty hurler. "He has a good fastball and I know he has been working on a few pitches but his curveball is his out pitch when he is locating it. On one at-bat against Joe Dudek he went 3-2 and Joe fouled off a few foul balls and Luis dropped a curve in there and he had no chance."
Paula was impressive, allowing two earned runs in six innings with six hits and a pair of walks. He pitched to his defense and threw a lot of first pitch strikes while working with his fastball in the low 90s.
"Everybody here has a chance to pitch," Paula said. "All our guys are good. All the freshmen who came up they are good, the returners are good. It makes everyone work a little bit harder because you know you can't just show up and play. You have to work hard. I think that helps everyone get better and that usually makes our pitching staff one of the best in the country."
Heading into his junior season Paula looks primed and ready to compete for any role, from filling out the weekend rotation to coming out of the pen.
An Incomplete Picture
"We had four pitchers out for the World Series that were hurt and we will have all of those guys back healthy in the spring," Fox said. "We have some experience in the spring with Trevor Kelley, Chris McCue and obviously Tate Parrish who was out this fall. Our bullpen will shake its way out. Some young guys are going to have a lot of innings for us after losing Hobbs [Johnson] and Kent [Emanuel]."
Every year the Tar Heels have an impressive crop of pitching prospects join the team. With the experience returning in the bullpen, the freshman class and the ranks of underused pitchers from a year ago, the Diamond Heels’ problem on the mound may be in not having enough innings to go around this spring. One thing that seems to be certain is that Benton Moss and Trent Thornton are on pace to be the first two weekend starters.
Coming into Focus
"I can tell you who the top 10 or 11 position players are at this point but I can't get that out there publicly right now because I still want our guys to fight and work throughout the fall," Fox said after the Fall World Series. However, he had already identified what would be the primary consideration about who was going to play where immediately. "Defense, it is my biggest concern without question with this team,” Fox said. “Are we going to be good defensively? We are going to have a new first baseman, a new second baseman and a new third baseman. I like where we are in terms of behind the plate, at short and in center, because we need to be good up the middle. Parks Jordan will be on the field for us somewhere, whether it is in left or first. He has some versatility for sure being a senior. So that is the biggest question mark about this team is: will we be able to make the routine play?"
The Tar Heels struggled to make the routine plays in the Fall World Series, committing 21 errors in the six-game series. Michael Russell is the only player to have started a complete collegiate season at his position in the FWS.
The Diamond Heels will have to work hard to gel as a defense this spring once the starters are determined in order to reach their lofty annual goal of less than an error per game.
"We are going to have some team speed which I really like," Fox said. "We have three or fouir guys who can really run. I think this will be a big dimension of our team and (we’ll) play some exciting baseball and turn some guys loose and play some aggressive baseball."
The Diamond Heels stole 21 bases during the Fall World Series, putting pressure on the defense in the field and the opposing battery. How much of this damage was because of inexperience on the mound and behind the plate? Adrian Chacon and Korey Dunbar did show good-catch-and-throw skills in senior Matt Roberts’s absence.
However, the one speedster that showed an uncanny ability on the bases was a precocious freshman in the Blue team's starting center fielder. "Adam Pate is very advanced as a freshman on the bases," Fox said. "You can see that clearly. You don't even have to be a coach to see the kid knows when to run and when not to run. I think he got thrown out only one time all fall."