2012 Chapel Hill Regional Preview

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

No. 1 North Carolina (44-14, 22-8 in ACC)
27th appearance (11th straight), at-large, ACC Coastal DIvision champion, No. 6 national seed

No. 2 East Carolina (35-22-1, 13-10-1 in C-USA)
26th appearance (second straight), at-large, sixth place in C-USA

No. 3 St. John's (37-21, 18-9 in Big East)
34th appearance (third straight), automatic, Big East regular-season co-champion and tournament champion

No. 4 Cornell (31-15-1, 14-6 in Ivy)
Second appearance (last in 1977), automatic, Ivy League Gehrig Division champion and tournament champion

North Carolina weathered the loss of its best player, 2011 Freshman of the Year Colin Moran, for 20 games due to a broken hand and still won the ACC's Coastal Division by four games over Virginia. The Tar Heels have one of college baseball's deepest pitching staffs, and the coaching staff uses its pieces masterfully, mixing and matching in the bullpen to suit any situation. UNC ranks third in the nation in ERA (2.54), seventh in strikeouts per nine innings (8.5) and eighth in fewest hits per nine (7.73). The staff is bookended by unflappable ace lefty Kent Emanuel (8-4, 2.03) and closer Michael Morin (6-3, 0.83, 17 saves), who each feature superb changeups, serviceable breaking balls and good fastball command. Freshman righty Benton Moss (6-2, 1.97) gives the staff an outstanding No. 2 starter with excellent feel for a downer curveball and the ability to spot his fastball, as well. Sophomore starter Hobbs Johnson (6-1, 1.37) and junior reliever R.C. Orlan (8-1, 2.01) are two more lefties with very good stuff, and there is no shortage of hard-throwing righties in the pen. With Moran (.362/.433/.507) back in the lineup, UNC's offense is capable, if not exactly explosive. Senior catcher Jacob Stallings (.299, 23 2B, 4 HR) and freshman shortstop Michael Russell (.275 batting average, .949 fielding percentage) give the lefty-leaning lineup a pair of quality righthanded bats in addition to solidifying the middle of the diamond. The infield defense has improved significantly since the Tar Heels inserted Russell at shortstop and shifted Tommy Coyle from short to second, but UNC's defense (.969 fielding percentage) is still an area to monitor.

East Carolina was a surprise No. 2 seed after losing six of its final nine games, finishing in sixth place in C-USA and dropping series against four of the five teams that finished ahead of it in the standings. Still, the Pirates are a solid club with good balance and a proven big-game ace in senior lefthander Kevin Brandt (7-6, 1.85), who relies on angle and command almost much as Emmanuel does. Heading into the season, coach Billy Godwin's biggest concern about his team was a lack of established bullpen arms. But the trio of junior righty Andy Smithmyer (5-2, 1.54), sophomore righty/infielder Drew Reynolds (3-0, 3.33, 10 SV) and redshirt sophomore righty Tanner Merritt (2.91, 8 SV) has emerged to stabilize the 'pen. Earlier this spring, Godwin describes his lineup as "solid," saying, "I don't think we're world beaters, but I think we're going to show up and play hard." Second baseman Tim Younger embodies that ethos; he's a scrappy gamer who does all the little things, plays solid defense and creates havoc with his speed, earning the nickname "Timmy Baseball." Though they don't steal a lot of bases, the Pirates also have good speed in the outfield with Philip Clark, Jay Cannon and Ben Fultz, and a veteran behind the plate in Zach Wright. And first baseman/right fielder John Wooten (.341/.395/.500, 8 HR) provides some thunder in the middle of the lineup.

St. John's opens its postseason against East Carolina for the second year in a row; last year they met in the No. 2/No. 3 game in Charlottesville, with St. John's winning 2-0 behind Sean Hagan, but ECU eliminating the Red Storm later in the weekend. The Johnnies lost a handful of regulars from that team, most notably first-round shortstop Joe Panik, and replacing him caused some headaches for the defense early on. St. John's got off to a sluggish start in nonconference play, falling to 4-9 after getting swept in a Saturday doubleheader at Liberty—during which the Red Storm committed 10 errors, six by shortstop Matt Wessinger. But Wessinger (who slid across the keystone sack from second base) quickly settled in defensively, and Danny Bethea has done a solid job replacing a three-year starter behind the plate, making St. John's a decent defensive team (despite its unsightly .960 fielding percentage). Wessinger (.348/.442/.491, 6 HR, 34 steals in 36 tries) has emerged as the team's most dynamic offensive player, and fellow veterans Jeremy Baltz (.342, 7 HR, 17 SB) and Sean O'Hare (.333, 40 RBI) are similarly tough outs with good power to the gaps. On the mound, St. John's has a pair of hard-throwing junior righties in Matt Carasiti (6-5, 3.79) and Kyle Hansen (4-5, 3.44) in addition to Hagan (8-2, 2.58), who is another physical, deceptive but not overpowering lefty in that Emanuel/Brandt mold. Carasiti can run his fastball into the mid-90s to go along with a swing-and-miss splitter and improved slider. The 6-foot-8 Hansen, whom coach Ed Blankmeyer likens to "a baby giraffe,"  pitches in the 91-94 range with good sink and flashes a plus slider at 78-84.

Cornell needed dramatic extra-inning wins on back-to-back Sundays to win the Ivy League championship and make it to regionals for the first time since 1977. After beating Princeton with a 12th-inning home run on the final day of the regular season to win the Gehrig Division, the Big Red split the first two games of the championship series against Dartmouth the following weekend, then won the rubber game on Chris Cruz's walk-off homer in the 11th. Cornell hoped Cruz would emerge as a force in the middle of its lineup as a sophomore after hitting three homers as a freshman, and he's done just that, slugging an Ivy-best 12 long balls. He's still learning to cut down his strikeouts and use the whole field, but he is a real presence in the lineup, as is senior Brian Billigen (.362/.446/.570 with five homers, 38 RBIs and 13 steals), the best overall player on the team. Coach Bill Walkenbach says Billigen is the closest thing in the Ivy League to a five-tool player—he runs the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds, plays a standout center field, has a good arm and has 19 career home runs, just two shy of Walkebach's school record. But pitching has been a driving force behind Cornell's school-record 31-win campaign. The Big Red went just 10-30 last year, but a banner freshman class has made a huge impact, especially on the mound. Brian McAfee (6-0, 3.19), like sophomore ace Connor Kaufmann (7-2, 4.00), is a savvy righthander who mixes speeds and locations with four pitches to keep hitters off balance. Senior sinkerballer Rick Marks (4-4, 3.09) and freshman Brent Jones (4-2, 4.50) give Cornell two more quality starters, while freshman righty Kellen Urbon (3-1, 0.51, nine saves) anchors the bullpen.