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By Aaron Fitt
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.--Miller and Bard. Bard and Miller. On the surface, the magic formula seemed that simple for North Carolina in 2005. The Tar Heels had two of the nation's most electric arms on a single pitching staff. Stud sophomores Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard were sure-fire future first-round picks; they figured to be a very formidable one-two punch capable of carrying UNC to its first College World Series since 1989.
But as the season wound down, it was neither Bard nor Miller taking the mound on Fridays for the Tar Heels. Rather, it was another sophomore with a much less impressive pedigree but a considerably prettier stat line: crafty righthander Robert Woodard, who captured first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors with a sparkling 8-0, 2.11 season.
Meanwhile, Miller--the 6-foot-6 lefthander with the mid-90s fastball--struggled through what he termed a late-season "collapse." He still finished 8-4, 2.98 with 104 strikeouts, but his 52 walks and 19 hit batsmen in 97 innings were more indicative of his frustrating second half. Bard, the 6-foot-4 righthander with a fastball almost as explosive as Miller's, battled problems with his command, his confidence and his focus. He finished with a rather pedestrian 7-5, 4.22 record with 43 walks and 21 hit batsmen in 90 innings.
Add in a lineup that featured as many as five freshmen at times and a moribund clubhouse, and the Tar Heels found that their recipe for success—which included a 3.17 team ERA, second in the ACC and 10th in the nation—needed some seasoning. A 1-2 performance in the NCAA regional in Gainesville, Fla.--Miller's hometown--confirmed what had already become apparent: North Carolina's much-ballyhooed pitching staff wasn't quite ready to carry the Tar Heels back to Omaha.
Now it's 2006, and Miller, Bard and Woodard are all juniors. For Miller and Bard, it's their last chance to make good on their considerable promise before major league clubs open their checkbooks for the duo in June. Coming off dominant performances in the Cape Cod League, the pair is more experienced, more mature and more likely than ever to translate their enormous talent into results.
If confidence was ever a problem for Miller or Bard in the past, you wouldn't know it now. Both juniors exude a quiet self-assurance when they talk about their collegiate careers and their expectations for this season. At the same time, they share a humility likely derived from the sometimes-tough lessons they have had to learn in their first two years at UNC.
"I think the struggles I had last year are only going to help me," Bard says, "because I realized what it's like not to be a guy that's always out there having success. It made me come back this summer with something to prove, so that's what I tried to do.
"It's just mental. Usually last spring I'd throw four or five good innings, then go out there for the fifth or sixth and throw up a five-spot or something. I had a lack of focus in certain innings, and they'd pile on a few runs. I think that's one of the things I've started to mature on last summer, and if I carry it into the spring I think you'll see a big difference in the stat category."
While pitching for the Cape's Wareham Gatemen, Bard focused on mastering the six or seven inches on the inner half of the plate so he can throw inside without hitting batters. He said he learned to locate his fastball better and made huge strides sharpening his slider, while also turning to his previously neglected changeup against tough lefthanded hitters. He finished the summer with a 1.25 ERA that ranked third in the league to go along with a league-high 82 strikeouts and just 20 walks in 65 innings.
Bard's arm slot used to allow hitters to pick up his fastball early, and they could beat him by laying off his breaking ball and sitting on his fastball down in the zone. But he has tweaked his mechanics and improved his slider, so the key will be maintaining his focus throughout his outings. UNC coach Mike Fox said Bard's mannerisms and approach this fall have revealed his increased maturity. It's consistent with someone who realizes this is his last season in Chapel Hill, so he'd better take full advantage of it.
Because of his high innings total during the spring and summer seasons, Bard did not pitch much in the fall, but Fox wanted to keep him engaged. The solution was letting Bard, an unsigned 20th-round pick of the Yankees in 2003, hit during scrimmages and practices.
"Daniel had a ball hitting this fall, and I don't think it took away from his pitching at all," Fox says. "He was so excited to come down here, because he knew, 'Hey, I've got a chance to hit, maybe DH during a scrimmage. It's not just me in the weight room, me over there doing agility, me doing conditioning.' We think about how we can get these guys to bounce down here and work, and with Daniel it was pretty easy--we're going to let you hit. He was like a little kid in a candy store."
The UNC coaching staff did things differently this fall than in years past, partly in an effort to keep the players loose. Wednesdays during the fall usually served as a break from the normal routine, as players competed in a team golf tournament, played paintball, went swimming, or dressed up for a Halloween party (Bard donned aviator glasses and became the spitting image of Val Kilmer's "Iceman" character from Top Gun). The more laid-back approach went over well with the players.
"There have been a lot of changes, little things, putting more responsibility on players, a little more trust in us," Bard says. "We have a lot better coach-player relationship with coach Fox, we're having a lot more fun this year than the two years I was here before, and everyone agrees on the team--we talk about it all the time. The atmosphere in the weight room, the running we do--everyone's into it."
Miller also enjoyed the new atmosphere in the fall, which saw the lanky, swift Miller running the bases during scrimmages and quarterbacking the club's flag football team--which Fox wasn't aware of until after the fact.
"People say, 'Gosh, I can't believe you would let him do those sorts of things,' but it's not for me to say, 'Andrew, sit at home in your apartment, don't do anything, you've got too much riding on it,' " Fox says. "You know what I love about Andrew is he just wants to enjoy life and be a college student. I've never heard him--ever--talk about the draft, money, his future. Never heard him utter a word."
It would be hard to blame Miller if he did think a little about June, when he could become the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. At least, that's the kind of buzz he was generating after winning BA's Summer Player of the Year Award with his second straight incredible season for the Cape League's Chatham A's. A third-round pick out of high school in 2003, Miller went 6-0, 1.65 with 66 strikeouts and 23 walks in 49 innings on the Cape, showing an ability to consistently work into the seventh inning. Like Bard, Miller concentrated on lowering his walk and hit batsmen totals.
"I think people think I'm more wild than I actually am," Miller says. "I think some games I'm too fine and I don't want to give in--I know that really hurt me against Miami last year. I felt like I knew exactly where the ball was going, but I didn't want to give in to such a good-hitting team. When I didn't give in, I walked the guys, and when I gave in, they punished me, so you've got to give them credit for that."
Miller was pounded for nine runs--seven earned--in 2 1/3 innings in that nationally televised start against Miami on April 15, and he limped to the end of the ACC season, getting hit hard by Florida State and Georgia Tech in his final two regular-season outings. He impressed Fox by bouncing back with eight strong innings in a tough-luck ACC Tournament loss, then got off to a terrific start against Florida in the NCAA regional, in front of his family and high school friends.
"The first four innings of that regional last year against Florida--phew, best four innings I've seen a kid throw," says Fox, whose first team at North Carolina in 1999 featured three future fringe big league pitchers in Mike Bynum, Ryan Snare and Kyle Snyder. "He looked like Sandy Koufax out there--they couldn't even sniff him."
But some bad bounces led to five Gators runs in the sixth inning. Miller settled back in to shut out Florida in the final two innings, but the damage was done. Still, he had something to build on for the summer.
Miller altered his delivery on the Cape, no longer going above his head in his windup because he believes he was tipping pitches. He worked on adding a cutter to go along with his slider, his four-seam fastball and his two-seamer. Though the big-breaking, hard slider is the pitch that makes Miller really stand out, he said he gets most of his outs by inducing ground balls with his fastball.
It's part of Miller's progression as a pitcher. He realizes he doesn't have to throw 95 every pitch; he has learned to work mostly with his 89-92 mph two-seam fastball and then reach back for the four-seamer when he needs more velocity.
With those kinds of lessons already out of the way, it makes new UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes' job easier--at least in theory. Forbes was a catcher for Fox at Division III North Carolina Wesleyan and coached on his North Carolina staff from 1999-2002 before moving to Winthrop. He was hired as East Carolina's recruiting coordinator early last summer. But when North Carolina pitching coach Roger Williams left to become associate head coach at Georgia, Fox tapped the young, enthusiastic Forbes to guide his collection of prized arms. Though Forbes has never been a Division I pitching coach, he learned a lot from Williams when he was a volunteer assistant at UNC. While their philosophies are similar, but Forbes brings a more gregarious, energetic personality. He said he does not feel added pressure to get better results out of the high-profile pitchers he has inherited.
"I've had that said to me a bunch: 'Man, the pressure's on you, you've got all those arms,' " Forbes said. "Even my wife has asked, 'Is there more pressure?' I guess my nature is I'm an extremely positive person, and probably during the season maybe I'll feel a little pressure, especially if we're struggling as a pitching staff. But that's what I coach for. I think it's good dang pressure to have, knowing that I may never get the opportunity again to coach on the same staff two guys that are hopefully going to go really high, and another guy that might outdo them wins-wise."
That other guy is Woodard, who went 13-1 combined last year between UNC and Chatham, with 23 walks in 144 innings. That pinpoint control, along with his deceptive windup, remarkable work ethic, fierce competitiveness and ability to throw four pitches for strikes at any time more than compensates for Woodard's lack of fastball velocity. His 84-87 mph fastball looks a lot faster on the heels of a backdoor changeup on a 3-0 count.
That mental toughness allowed Woodard to outperform from his more publicized rotation mates--he called them "purebreds"--last year. It's hardly a shock that Woodard put more time into developing his chess skills than his baseball skills up until he was in eighth grade, even becoming a North Carolina state chess champion during middle school.
"In chess, you can analyze an entire game in your mind--I probably can't anymore, but at one point I could go 20, 25 moves deep in my mind, going through certain variations," Woodard says. "When you're on the mound, you're thinking of certain situations: This guy did this last time, he's expecting this, he wants this, if he hits it here we're going to do this. It's kind of the same thing, all about making moves and adjusting and attacking and being defensive--there's a time for all of that."
It comes down to pitching, not just relying on stuff, and Woodard has it down. Forbes thinks Bard and Miller have figured it out, too.
"It doesn't matter how hard you throw and what kind of stuff you have, pitching is pitching," Forbes says. "You have to get ahead in the count and those little things that Rob has done. They have to understand that their stuff is not going to get them out of jams all the time. Those two guys, they're as competitive as anybody, but learning to channel it is something they work hard on."
That work could pay off with a trip to Omaha.