Wednesday, May 12, 2010

series preview: North Carolina

Flying out of town again on Friday, so this stuff comes at you a day early. Plus I'm getting antsy for more baseball. Final exam break is boring. This weekend's opponent is UNC, and much like in basketball, this is a good chance to stomp the Heels while they're down. Normally an Omaha-caliber team, UNC finds themselves on the bubble for not just the NCAAs, but even the ACC tournament. They are tied at the moment with NC State (whom they beat in an earlier series) for the 8th and final place in Greensboro. The Heels have the tiebreaker, but they also have the tougher row to hoe in the next two weeks - especially this weekend, where they face a team capable of sweeping them if they don't play good baseball.

Yes, I said "sweep" - but I also said UNC would have to play poorly for that to happen. UVA is at a disadvantage right off the bat: it'll have been well over a week since they saw any live pitching in a game. UNC had their finals break a couple weeks ago and are on a nice seven game winning streak - eight if they beat Charleston tonight. A series against Wake Forest such as they had last week is really good for what ails ya.

UNC is still a good baseball team, so if a UVA sweep is in the offing, don't expect this streak of double-digit runs to continue. UNC has quality pitching, especially from Friday starter Matt Harvey, who promises to be excellent competition for Danny Hultzen. Harvey's numbers aren't quite as eye-popping as Hultzen's, but they're still brilliant, especially for college pitchers: a 2.68 ERA, .212 opponents' BA, 80 Ks. Like Hultzen, he's gone the distance once this season.

Second starter Patrick Johnson has been throwing on Sundays lately, likely in an effort to match up against a team's worst starter, and he's no slouch either (3.62 ERA), though somewhat more hittable than your usual second starter (.280 opponents' BA) and prone to the occasional disaster when opponents string those hits together. NC State did just that and lit him up to the tune of six runs in the fourth. The Heels have been tag-teaming the third (Saturday for them) starter's job, with either Chris Munnelly or Colin Bates starting and the other first out of the bullpen. Neither is fearsome.

As for the bats, UNC has 'em, but they lack two things: a bottom third of the order, and that one really nasty, fearsome hitter that you never want to see in the on-deck circle. Dustin Ackley not only left town early, he was the second pick in the MLB draft, behind Stephen Strasburg. He left Carolina without a true masher in the middle of the lineup, so their lineup looks a lot like a poor man's UVA. It's a good set of hitters, but the highest batting average on the team would rank 7th at UVA (that belongs to Dillon Hazlett, hitting .352, but he takes so few walks his OBP is only fifth on the team.) And they're exceedingly low on power. Their 33 home runs are the second-fewest in the conference, ahead of only the anemic Terrapins, and only one player has more than five.

In general I expect a low-scoring series: Carolina's strength is their pitching and they have a capable bullpen. Their hitting ought to be good enough to take one game, two if we show up on Friday and the batspeed hasn't caught back up to the fastballs yet. But if Hultzen is really zoned in on Friday, and if the crafty but hittable Patrick Johnson suddenly starts giving up hits all in a row on Sunday....well, NC State has Duke this weekend and the pressure is on UNC to steal one or they'll be seriously behind the 8-ball going into the regular season's final weekend.



- Ken Clausen is a Tewaaraton Trophy finalist. No defenseman has ever won the males' trophy, and I doubt it'll happen this year; it'd probably take a UVA national title plus Duke falling short of the final four for the voters to turn their heads away from Ned Crotty's 51 assists.

- The ACC/Big Ten Challenge opponent is Minnesota, so yay for my prognostication. I suppose I'd have been smart to check out which other Big Ten teams had been on the road last year. So we probably lose that game. The annoying thing after all is that there are eleven Big Ten teams, and this is, I think, the 12th year of the event, and this'll be the fourth matchup against Minnesota. No imagination, man. But we get the first-day matchup in which UVA is the only show of the day, so that means a national TV audience.

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