Thursday, April 17, 2014

series preview: North Carolina

Date/Time: Fri.-Sat., April 18-20; 6:00, 1:00, 1:00

TV: Cavaliers Live Friday and Sunday; RSN and ESPN3 on Saturday

Record against the Heels: 100-176-4

Last meeting: UVA 2-1 over UNC (10-4. 5-8, 8-7); 5/16-5/18/13, Chapel Hill

Last game: UVA 11, W&M 2 (4/16); UNC 5, Elon 4 (4/16)

Last weekend:
UVA 2-1 over Clemson (3-2, 1-7, 1-0)
UNC 2-1 over WF (9-0, 4-3, 5-6)

National rankings:

Baseball America: UVA #1; UNC UR
Collegiate Baseball: UVA #2; UNC UR
Perfect Game: UVA #1; UNC UR
Coaches: UVA #1; UNC ARV

Pitching probables:

LHP Nathan Kirby (7-1, 1.23) vs. RHP Trent Thornton (7-1, 1.50)

RHP Josh Sborz (3-2, 2.91) vs. RHP Benton Moss (2-1, 3.62)

LHP Brandon Waddell (5-1, 2.78) vs. RHP Zac Gallen (3-3, 4.99)

The Hoos are riding higher than they have all season, a near-consensus #1 in the rankings and sporting a shiny 14-4 record in conference play.  Normally that'd mean this was one of the biggest series in the country this week, but the Heels aren't holding up their end.  UNC's low point so far this season is probably a sweep at the hands of Duke, and they've also provided lowly Boston College with one of their three conference wins.

The pressure remains on UVA, though; despite the lofty rank, they're at risk of not even leading their division at the end of the week.  There'd be no shame in a 2-1 series win over UNC, even if they are struggling, but Miami hosts Notre Dame this week, and it'd be a shock if they didn't sweep the Irish.  Even with a good showing, UVA could be looking upwards in the Coastal, and very much needs to avoid giving away two games on the weekend.

UNC scouting report:

-- First base: Adrian Chacon (.264-1-8).  Let's start this off by saying, right off the bat, that UNC's lineup has been really fluid this year.  UNC coach Mike Fox has been letting things go for two to three weeks and then shuffling the batting order, and by that pattern UNC is due for another shuffle.  First base has been a place where the shuffle is most evident; three different players started here against Wake Forest, and UNC went through another stretch where they started four different players in five games.  Joe Dudek started the first 21 games, but his .218 batting average dissuaded Fox from giving him any further regular role.  Dudek is a lefty hitter while Chacon is a righty, so if Dudek plays it'll be on Saturday; otherwise, first base tends to be a place where UNC moves someone from another position for a game so as to get an outfielder off the bench or a DH some field time.  Chacon, for his part, will occupy one of the spots in the bottom third of the order, depending on who else plays.

-- Second base: Wood Myers (.307-0-17).  On the other hand, this is the picture of stability.  Myers is a freshman that the Heels really like; he handles himself well at second, and his lefty bat gives him the ability to turn some singles into doubles.  He's second on the team in doubles despite lacking any semblance of power - he's yet to hit a triple and probably will never homer.  Myers is one of two Heels that have started every game at the same position - their double-play combo is the only thing they've kept completely intact - and typically bats second.

-- Third base: Landon Lassiter (.266-0-11).  A freshman all-American last season with a BA of .358, Lassiter has definitely hit a sophomore slump this year.  Opening the season near the top of the lineup and spending a time as the leadoff hitter, Lassiter has been bumped to fifth in the order, but without the power hitting that often implies.  Despite a propitious drop in batting average and collecting only two extra-base hits out of 34, he has a keen eye and a knack for getting on base in general - he's collected 26 walks, second on the team, and leads the Heels with 9 HBP.  His slump may be attributable in part to his move to the field on an everyday basis, as he's started all but three games at third base after being primarily the DH last year.  It's been a rocky road; Lassiter has piled up 12 errors for a fielding percentage of .852.

-- Shortstop: Michael Russell (.338-3-25).  This junior and second-year starter at shortstop is undoubtedly the Heels' top offensive threat.  Russell is tough to pitch to; he hits the ball all over the field and draws plenty of walks, and once on base, is also the top base-stealer on the team, with a 10-for-11 success rate.  He spent most of the season batting third or fourth, as you'd expect of a hitter of his caliber, but lately has been in the leadoff spot.  I read this as a sign that Mike Fox is trying anything to stop the offense from sputtering, and figures he might as well maximize the appearances for his best hitter.

-- Left field: Parks Jordan (.257-0-15).  UNC definitely has its share of guys whose first name is really more of a last name.  Seems like more of a lacrosse phenomenon, but whatever.  Jordan is a left-handed hitting senior who's never been a major offensive threat but also never been terrible; his career average is .256.  He packs very little power and has a slugging average of just .286, a mere three points below Lassiter to claim the bottom spot among regulars.  Jordan is a high-quality fielder, however; he committed his first collegiate error just this season.

-- Center field: Skye Bolt (.250-1-17).  Like Lassiter, Bolt was a freshman sensation last year - probably more well-known than Lassiter due to a combination of his name and playing in the field - and has hit a sophomore wall this year.  Bolt is a speedy player, a good fielder, and his 27 walks and 14 strikeouts indicate a good batting eye - he's just not collecting base hits.  Nevertheless, he's been batting third lately and hits in the top of the lineup most games this year.

-- Right field: Tyler Ramirez (.311-1-17).  Despite having some of the top numbers on the team, Ramirez is one of the players more likely to be bumped from the lineup, and his typical spot in the order is 8th or 9th.  One wonders if the next lineup shuffle from UNC moves him nearer the top.  Zach Daly (.258-2-5), usually used in a pinch-hitting role, gets an occasional start here, as does the very light-hitting Adam Pate (.176-0-2), whose main role is as a pinch-runner.

-- Catcher: Korey Dunbar (.248-3-25).  Early in the season this job belonged to Adrian Chacon, but Dunbar took over two weeks in, and when Chacon eventually returned to the lineup it was at first base.  Dunbar doesn't get much rest, starting all but three games since then.  He doesn't hit for a great deal of contact and he strikes out a ton, and is generally a bottom-half hitter, but he does at least have a little pop in his bat when he does make contact.

-- Designated hitter: Tom Zengel (.329-4-25).  Fox has used this spot this year to get a variety of players some time in the lineup, but that's getting harder and harder to do since Zengel is basically the second-best hitter after Michael Russell.  He's having a big breakout year as a senior after not hitting much in his first two and sitting as a junior.  Lately he's been batting cleanup, an appropriate spot for the team slugging (.565) and HR (4) leader.

-- Pitching staff:

Friday: RHP Trent Thornton (7-1, 1.50).  Thornton is a high draft pick in the making, and his matchup with Nathan Kirby promises to be a must-watch.  He's got three plus pitches, maybe four depending on his slider, and started the season as Carolina's Saturday starter but didn't need much time to show he deserved the role of Friday ace.  His average outing lasts into the 8th inning.  His numbers are eerily similar to Kirby's, and he's only allowed three extra-base hits all year.

Saturday: RHP Benton Moss (2-1, 3.62).  A veteran workhorse in his third year in the starting rotation.  He's been consistent but not spectacular his whole career; his excellent freshman-year numbers are mainly built on weekday competition.  Moss has started twice against UVA in his career; in 2012 he earned a win and in 2013 a no-decision.  He was outdueled by Scott Silverstein last year but Carolina came away with the win when Kyle Crockett inexplicably melted down.

Sunday: RHP Zac Gallen (3-3, 4.99).  Gallen comes in as a very highly-rated freshman, with stuff that the scouts really liked, but has been very hittable this year so far.  That ERA is just a shade under 5, and he's allowing a BA of .288.

Bullpen: Carolina goes very deep in the bullpen, and should be able to match UVA stride for stride here.  RHP Chris McCue (0-0, 0.77) is a tough customer as the closer, with 7 saves in as many appearances.  UNC leans very hard on righty Reilly Hovis (5-1, 2.09), allowing a .196 batting average, and righties Spencer Trayner (2-2, 2.25) and Trevor Kelley (0-1, 2.40) are trusted options as well.  There aren't many lefties; if UNC wants one they'll turn to Zach Rice (1-2, 3.52), usually for only a batter or two.

Bottom line: Carolina has good pitching, as they tend to usually do, but they're frustrating their fans with poor performance at the plate.  Sound familiar?  The difference between us and them is we were bursting at the seams with options for the rotation and they've had trouble getting consistency from Gallen and have no other options they fully trust.  Also, this is a fairly young team; usually, the backbone of a good team is your junior class, but UNC has only five, and only Michael Russell is not a pitcher.  They have a couple seniors too, but the team is mostly underclassmen, and in too many cases for the sanity of UNC fans, highly underachieving sophomores.

Despite all that, UNC's lineup is outperforming UVA's on the stat sheet, so the advantage we might have is not great.  Friday promises to be a terrific battle between two terrific pitchers, and could easily be won 1-0 by either team.  UVA will have the advantage on the mound from then on, though Moss is a very capable pitcher and shouldn't be discounted.

Prediction: UVA 2-1.  The Hoos aren't batting well enough that they're likely to hit both Thornton and Moss hard enough to win.  Just like last week, Sunday should set up as a rubber match which UVA should then win.

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