Chapel Hill Regional Preview


Boshamer Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C. (Host: North Carolina)

No. 1 North Carolina (52-8, 21-7 in ACC)
28th appearance (12th straight), automatic, ACC regular-season and tournament champion, No. 1 national seed
Top 500 Prospects: 3B Colin Moran (No. 7), LHP Kent Emanuel (No. 61),  LHP Hobbs Johnson (No. 332)

No. 2 Florida Atlantic (39-20, 19-11 in Sun Belt)
Eighth appearance (last in 2010), automatic, Sun Belt tournament champion

No. 3 Towson (29-28, 14-13 in CAA)
Third appearance (last in 1991), automatic, CAA tournament champion

No. 4 Canisius (42-15, 15-9 in MAAC)
First appearance, automatic, MAAC tournament champion

Hobbs Johnson

Hobbs Johnson (photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

North Carolina ranked No. 1 in the preseason and raced out to a 44-4 start to remain atop the rankings until it lost its final two regular-season series. The Tar Heels rebounded with five straight wins last week (starting with a nonconference bonus game against Florida State) to win the ACC tournament, helping them secure the No. 1 national seed. UNC has been the nation’s most dominant team this season, outscoring its opponents by 5.2 runs per game—a full run better than the team with the next-best scoring margin (Virginia, 4.2 runs per game). The Tar Heels boast the ACC’s player of the year (Colin Moran) and pitcher of the year (Kent Emanuel), and the roster is deep and talented. Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson join Emanuel in a rock-solid rotation composed of very competitive, experienced arms with good stuff. The bullpen is anchored by freshman standout Trent Thornton (9-1, 1.29), who owns a 90-93 mph fastball, a quality breaking ball and changeup, and serious poise. Chris McCue, Trevor Kelley and Chris Munnelly lead the supporting cast in the bullpen. The Tar Heels rank fourth in the nation in ERA (2.52), second in scoring (8.2 runs per game) and 32nd in fielding percentage (.975), leaving them with no significant weakness. Moran, Cody Stubbs, Skye Bolt and Brian Holberton provide good power in the middle, while Chaz Frank, Michael Russell and Bolt give UNC some speed. The switch-hitting Bolt gives the lineup an important, effective bat from the right side in a lefty-leaning lineup. And there are tough outs up and down the lineup, as usual; UNC ranks second in the nation with 328 walks. They excel at working counts and driving starters out of games early.

Austin Gomber

Austin Gomber

Florida Atlantic overcame a sluggish 5-5 start to break into the BA Top 25 for the first time since 2004 after it swept South Alabama in late March. The Owls scuffled again in April, then caught fire over the last three weeks, winning their final 11 games to sweep through the Sun Belt tournament for the first time. Freshman Brendon Sanger (.373/.450/.519) provided a huge spark when he forced his way into the FAU lineup in the first month of the season, and he went on to lead the team in hitting. Two more newcomers, junior-college transfers Tyler Rocklein (.284, 9 HR) and Mark Nelson (.288, 6 HR) have provided some punch in the middle of the lineup. Five-foot-9 senior center fielder Nathan Pittman (.332/.456/.490, 13 SB) makes the Owls go, working counts atop the lineup (41 walks and 41 strikeouts) and providing speed on the basepaths. FAU is a balanced offensive club, it plays sound defense (.971 fielding percentage), and it has three reliable starting pitchers in ace lefty Austin Gomber, veteran righty Jeremy Strawn and senior bulldog Jake Meiers. The best way to have a chance against North Carolina is to throw a quality lefthander, so the Owls will save Gomber (a 6-foot-5 southpaw with a 91-93 fastball and a good changeup) for a potential Saturday matchup against UNC. The Owls also have an extremely experienced fifth-year senior closer in Hugh Adams (2-0, 0.84, 17 saves), who has good run on his 86-88 fastball and an effective slider that he throws in any situation.

Towson might be the best feel-good story in college baseball this season. Back on March 8, the Towson administration finalized its October decision to cut its baseball program after this season. A month later, funding from the governor’s supplemental budget spared Towson baseball from the chopping block. Now Towson is headed to regionals for the first time since 1991. Pitching on two days’ rest, senior righthander Mike Volpe turned in a heroic 139-pitch outing in Saturday’s CAA title game against William & Mary, allowing just two runs on seven hits and two walks while striking out six in a complete game. Volpe (9-3, 3.86) anchors an underwhelming Towson pitching staff (5.13 team ERA) that is at its best when it is inducing ground balls and letting the strong defense make plays behind it. Towson leads the nation with 79 double plays, and it has a reliable middle infield tandem in junior shortstop Hunter Bennett and junior second baseman Pat Fitzgerald (a 5-foot-7 scrapper). Towson also has a standout defender behind the plate in Andrew Parker, who receives and blocks well and controls the running game very well, throwing out 50 percent of basestealers this year (25 of 50). Parker (10 home runs) also is a key part of a powerful Towson lineup that ranks 12th in the nation with 52 home runs. Kurt Wertz (.341/.421/.659, 13 HR, 63 RBI) is the biggest threat in the middle of the lineup, and he has good protection courtesy of Peter Bowles (.332/.391/.554, 8 HR, 47 RBI) and Dominic Fratantuonto (.345/.449/.573, 8 HR, 51 RBI, 14 SB). At No. 90 in the Ratings Percentage Index, Towson is an inexplicable choice as a No. 3 seed, but the Tigers do have the offensive firepower and sound defense to be a tough out in this regional.

Canisius has been knocking on the door to regionals for a while, making four trips to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title game in the last five years. The Golden Griffins finally broke through this year, outslugging Siena 12-11 in Sunday’s title game, propelling them to their first-ever MAAC tournament title, and their first trip to regionals. Canisius improved to 42-15 overall, the most wins in MAAC history (breaking the record held by the 2008 Canisius team and the 2002 Marist squad). The Griffs excel at grinding out at-bats, as evidenced by their 122 hit-by-pitches (second-most in the nation) and their .418 on-base percentage (third in the nation). They have above-average team speed, with five players who have recorded double-digits in steals, and 26 triples as team (sixth in the nation). Upperclassmen Jimmy Luppens (.368/.468/.508, 5 HR, 47 RBI) and Brooklyn Foster (.353/.477/.517) are the primary run producers in the lineup, but there are no easy outs, and the Griffs are hitting .307 as a team. The pitching staff is bookended by a workhorse ace in junior righty Garrett Cortright (11-3, 2.24) and a power-armed closer in junior righty Jon Fitzsimmons (4-0, 1.19 with 10 saves). Fitzsimmons, one of 13 Canadians on the roster, can reach the low 90s and has a good slider and changeup, and opponents have hit just .149 against him this year. Canisius is certainly a long shot against the tournament’s No. 1 national seed, but at No. 94 in the RPI and with plenty of experience on the roster, the Griffs are no pushover.