Chapel Hill Regional Capsule

Chapel Hill Regional Capsule
Boshamer Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.

No. 1 North Carolina (48-12)
22nd appearance, automatic, won Atlantic Coast tournament, No. 3 national seed

No. 2 East Carolina (39-21)
22nd appearance, at-large, Conference USA

No. 3 Western Carolina (40-18)
11th appearance, at-large, Southern

No. 4 Jacksonville (34-26)
11th appearance, automatic, won Atlantic Sun tournament

One of the most balanced teams in the nation, North Carolina ranks in the top 10 nationally in both ERA (3.17, sixth) and fielding percentage (.974, 10th) and ranks 17th in batting (.320). The 2006 national runners-up have more than enough firepower to get back to the championship series, replacing departed first-round arms Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard in the rotation with power-armed freshman Alex White and redshirt sophomore Luke Putkonen. The offense might be even better than it was a year ago thanks to the additions of freshman first baseman Dustin Ackley (.437/.469/.624 with seven homers and 63 RBIs) and freshman outfielder Tim Fedroff (.359/.419/.532), who has forced his way into regular duty in the second half. The bullpen is one of UNC’s biggest strengths thanks to Andrew Carignan’s transformation from very good closer in 2006 (3.21 ERA, 15 saves) to exceptional closer in 2007 (1.20 ERA, 13 saves). The red-hot Tar Heels are peaking at the right time, having just wrapped up their first ACC tournament title since 1990.

East Carolina won its first three games in the CUSA tournament to earn a championship game appearance against Rice. The Owls exposed ECU’s main weakness–the lack of a quality fourth starter–by piling on 16 runs on 15 hits. That flaw could loom large this weekend unless the Pirates can win the regional in three games. ECU doesn’t have much in the way of star power, unless you count hard-throwing closer Shane Matthews, but second-year coach Billy Godwin (in his first year without the ‘interim’ tag) has done a masterful job maximizing his talent. The Pirates always play hard and frequently claw back from behind, with an offense that has a knack for big hits. Diminutive outfielder Harrison Eldridge typifies that approach, and so does injured shortstop Dale Mollenhauer, who has only been available for pinch-running duty recently while he recovers from a broken hamate. Sophomore second baseman Ryan Wood has done an outstanding job filling in at short in Mollenhauer’s absence, demonstrating smooth, graceful actions and a strong, accurate arm.

Western Carolina earned an at-large bid out of the SoCon even after going 0-2 in the conference tourney. The key was their solid non-conference slate, which included wins against Georgia Tech, Clemson, Georgia, North Carolina State, and Ohio State. Slop-tossing lefthander Drew Saberhagen (8-1, 3.10), the son of hard-tossing major leaguer Bret, was involved in a couple of those wins, and he wound up in the weekend rotation behind ace lefty Tyler Sexton. If the Catamounts can slug their way past ECU, their quality lefthanded pitching could help neutralize some of North Carolina’s standout lefthanded bats. And the Catamounts can certainly hit–they rank in the national top 10 in scoring, homers, doubles and slugging. Senior second baseman Kenny Smith (.396/.459/.765 with 18 homers and 79 RBIs) leads a group of five Catamounts with double-digit home runs.

Jacksonville was the No. 4 seed in the Atlantic Sun tournament before becoming the No. 4 seed in the Chapel Hill regional. The Dolphins’ spirited run through the conference tournament began with a 12-7 loss to Belmont, but they followed it up by winning four consecutive elimination games. Not much stands out about Jacksonville other than its moxie–the Dolphins rank in the middle of the A-Sun pack in just about every major statistical category. Their most dangerous hitter is senior outfielder Pete Clifford (.359/.464/.641 with 14 homers and 59 RBIs), but no one else has more than six home runs. The Dolphins do have some speed, with four players in double figures in stolen bases, and a reliable closer in Matt Davis (3.12 ERA, six saves). Jacksonville will have be play a nearly perfect game to beat a North Carolina club that far overmatches it in talent.