Tar Heels Open With A Bang

For a while, it looked like North Carolina was going to upstage fellow CWS finalist Oregon State, which started off 2007 by throwing a combined no-hitter against Hawaii-Hilo. UNC senior righthander Robert Woodard took a perfect game into the seventh inning in the Tar Heels’ season-opening 11-0 win against Seton Hall on Friday, before Matt Smedberg’s two-out double to right field spoiled the bid on Woodard’s 66th pitch. His final line: 7 2/3 economical innings (just 80 pitches, 63 strikes), one hit, no runs, seven strikeouts (tying a career high), no walks. He worked mostly with his fastball, which sat in the mid-80s and topped out at 87. That’s a change from late last year, when pitching coach Scott Forbes said Woodard topped out around 84-85 thanks to a tired arm.

“I worked really hard this summer and this fall and coming into spring practice on my arm strength, and put a little more emphasis on my legs and my core,” Woodard said. “My body feels really good right now, I’ve just got to maintain it and keep going from there. Coach Forbes and I worked really hard on my throwing program and building more arm strength, and at the same time I really kicked it up a notch with my legs as far as running hills and stadium stairs.”

Not only did Woodard’s fastball have life, but he was able to command it very well, as usual. He worked the knees, in and out, and mixed in a few sliders and changeups. Most of his strikeouts came on the fastball, but he got one or two whiffs with the changeup. Woodard was operating under an 85-90 pitch limit, and he said that even if he still had the perfect game intact he probably would not have exceeded his limit.

“It’s early. I’ve got a lot more innings I need to throw this year than just today,” Woodard said.

As for Pirates starter Dan Merklinger, he took his lumps against the potent UNC lineup. He cruised through the first two innings, but freshman Drew Poulk’s solo home run to left field in his first collegiate at-bat seemed to wake up the UNC bats in the third. Merklinger ended up allowing eight runs–seven earned–on 10 hits over five innings, striking out just two and walking four. He flashed a few good breaking balls in the 76-77 mph range, but his fastball sat around 85 and topped out at 88-89. When Merklinger was at his best in the Cape Cod League last summer, he ran his fastball into the 88-91 range consistently. Of course, it’s early in the year and Seton Hall hasn’t been outside much. Merklinger should come around.