UNC Owns An Arms Advantage

See also: North Carolina-Oregon State Stat Pack

North Carolina and Oregon aren’t exactly bastions of baseball. Neither state can claim a major league team. But one will celebrate a College World Series champion early next week after Oregon State advanced to the championship series against North Carolina with a win against Rice.

Though both schools come from strong conferences–the Atlantic Coast and Pacific-10–neither boasts much of a CWS history, and neither has advanced to the finals before. In fact, North Carolina and Oregon State are two of the three programs that have lost the first five CWS games.

The Tar Heels ended that streak in 1978, when current coach Mike Fox played second base. The Beavers stopped their skid Monday, beating Miami in the first of the four elimination games they had to win to make it this far.

North Carolina has taken a different path to the finals, winning three games in the course of a week to remain the only undefeated team in the NCAA tournament. That puts it in an advantageous position entering this weekend’s best-of-three championship series, which begins Saturday.

The Tar Heels have their rotation lined up, with College Player of the Year Andrew Miller ready for the opener, followed by righthander Robert Woodard on Sunday and Daniel Bard if necessary Monday. That’s two first-round picks sandwiching a pitcher who has thrown the only complete-game shutout of this year’s CWS.

The starters’ success has provided relief for the relievers as well. Not that pitching coach Scott Forbes needs a reason to keep those guys in the bullpen. UNC relievers have worked 8 2/3 scoreless innings in Omaha, allowing seven hits and four walks.

“Rest is good,” said North Carolina reliever Jonathan Hovis, who leads the nation with a 1.20 ERA in 67 innings. “For them to have to play again (Thursday), I think both teams are using their ace. That’s definitely going to help us out a little bit. But it’s the championship series, so it’s going to be tough, no matter what.”

Oregon State enters the finals without that benefit, but its staff has found nearly as much success in Omaha. After losing 11-1 to Miami behind ace Dallas Buck in the opener, the Beavers have won four straight games by leaning on starting pitching that has posted an 0.98 ERA during that span. Junior righthander Jonah Nickerson won twice in four days, beating Georgia on Monday and Rice on Thursday, but he’s not going to be ready by Saturday to square off against Miller.

“I don’t know when I’ll be able to go,” said Nickerson, who has thrown 223 pitches since Monday. “I’ll just rest up and get back there when I can.”

Oregon State will need to hope Buck can return by then. He allowed seven runs in five innings against Miami, but wasn’t ready to come back Thursday against Rice on four days’ rest. Buck has pitched effectively through an elbow injury all season, dropping his velocity into the mid-80s.

“Dallas felt like he didn’t have enough rest to go deep into the game,” Casey said. “He came to us and told us that, and we trust our players. He felt like he’d help us more if we needed him for an inning or two out of the bullpen.”

Mike Stutes, who beat Miami with 6 1/3 strong innings Tuesday, will likely get the ball in the first or second game for the Beavers. And Casey might have to find out if Daniel Turpen can continue the magic that allowed him to throw 6 2/3 scoreless innings Wednesday in just his second start of the year.

“I have no idea who’s going to start,” Casey said. “Obviously, we’re in a little bit of a hole here having played four straight days and having spent Nickerson. We can maybe go with Buck and then Stutes. But there’s no more tired, no more excuses and no more owwies this time of year.”

The other problem Oregon State will face comes with the North Carolina players in the batter’s box. The Tar Heels lead all tournament teams in home runs and slugging percentage. Five of their 16 home runs have come at the College World Series. Now those bats are ready to attack a depleted pitching staff.

“It’s where we wanted to be,” North Carolina first baseman Chad Flack said. “When we thought about it last week before we came down, this is exactly where we wanted to be, and this is a great feeling to be here. It really is.”

North Carolina coach Mike Fox remains cautious in talking about the advantage his club has going into the weekend, pointing out that both sides enter with a clean slate. He’s aware of the grit and toughness Oregon State showed in battling out of the loser’s bracket to reach the finals.

Oregon State closer Kevin Gunderson also played it safe. He guaranteed his team’s 2006 return to Omaha after getting eliminated in 2005, but wasn’t nearly as bold after his team beat Rice on Thursday.

“I’m keeping my mouth shut,” he said. “We’re going to practice (Friday) and prepare for North Carolina.”