FULLERTON, Calif.—North Carolina has always had premium front-line pitching during its dominant last half-decade, and it usually has had a reliable bullpen anchor as well. This spring, the Tar Heels don't have a future first-round ace in the rotation for the first time 2003—before Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard arrived. But they still have that trusty closer, and they might have a deeper bullpen than they've had before.
The bullpen was the big story for UNC in Saturday's 4-3 win at Cal State Fullerton, in 11 innings. After bulldog senior righty Patrick Johnson worked 5 2/3 solid innings, allowing just two runs (one earned), the largely unheralded UNC bullpen limited the Titans to just one more run on two hits the rest of the way.
"We definitely feel like our strength as a team is our pitching depth, and we saw a little of that today," said catcher Jacob Stallings, who also laced a solo homer to left in the sixth. "P.J. gave us 5 2/3 great innings, then we just came in and played the matchups. Our bullpen, we feel like that is our strength, and it showed tonight."
Senior righty Greg Holt has gradually developed into an invaluable bullpen anchor during his UNC career, which began as a position player. After hitting 92-94 mph on the radar gun while striking out five in 2 2/3 scoreless innings Friday against Cal Poly, Holt came back to throw two strong innings Saturday, allowing just one hit (though he did allow an inherited runner to score). He sat in the 89-91 range and touched 92 Saturday, and his 80-83 slider was very effective.
"I told Greg on the bus the other day, I was glad he couldn't hit," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "He came into our program as a hitter, and I was trying to make a joke—not a very funny one. It didn't work out for him as a hitter, but we saw that arm strength. When he just started focusing on pitching, the sky's been the limit with him. The great thing about Greg is he recovers so quickly—he's got a rubber arm."
The Tar Heels used four lesser known bullpen arms before and after Holt, and all of them were effective. Freshmen Tate Parrish (a lefthanded specialist with a low arm slot) and Shane Taylor (a righty with a high-80s fastball and a charp mid-70s curve) helped North Carolina negotiate the sixth and seventh innings. Sophomore R.C. Orlan gave the 'pen another look from the left side in his strong 1 1/3 innings. He is firmer than Parrish, with an 88-89 mph fastball and a good low-80s slider.
And sophomore righty Cody Penny, who pitched very sparingly as a freshman, worked a perfect 11th to earn his first save. Penny Struck out Richy Pedroza on a filthy breaking ball, then froze Anthony Hutting with a 94 mph fastball spotted perfectly over the outside corner. Dangerous Nick Ramirez popped out to left to end it.
"The one thing I think we'll be able to do all year long is I think we'll be able to pitch," Fox said. "We have more depth on our pitching staff than I think we've had at North Carolina in a long time, and I think it showed in this game today.
"We haven't had that (ability to mix and match) in the past at North Carolina. We've had some good front-line guys, but we really haven't had those lefties that are different. R.C.'s really, really improved and throwing harder than he did last year, and so is Cody Penny. Those guys have made a step up from their freshman to their sophomore years. There's nothing better than just to throw them out there—the first two pitchers we ran out there were freshmen. Baptism by fire."
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