Heels Seek Even Keel
2006 College Preview
By Aaron Fitt
January 19, 2006
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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.