After North Carolina beat Florida Atlantic on Monday night, in a 12-11 classic that lasted 13 innings, some observers wondered how fresh the Tar Heels’ pitching staff would be for this weekend’s Chapel Hill Super Regional against South Carolina.
On Monday, Tar Heels coach Mike Fox used all three of his primary starters. Benton Moss started the regional’s Friday game (and threw 90 pitches), then threw five pitches Monday. Kent Emanuel started Saturday (124 pitches), then threw 51 on Monday. Hobbs Johnson tossed 89 on Sunday and six Monday.
Immediately after the game, Fox defended his use of the starters, saying they told him they were ready to go. Emanuel is an elite professional prospect who is ranked by Baseball America as the No. 61 amateur player eligible for this year’s Major League Baseball draft.
On Wednesday, as USC prepared to head to Chapel Hill, Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook also defended the Tar Heels’ coaches.
Holbrook has a close relationship with North Carolina, having played there from 1990-93 and coached there from 1994-2008, before coming to USC. In his final 10 years at North Carolina, he worked under Fox.
North Carolina’s pitching coach, Scott Forbes, is one of Holbrook’s best friends. They worked together when Forbes was at North Carolina from 1999-2002 and then again from 2006-08, after Forbes spent the three seasons in between as a Winthrop assistant. This is Forbes’ eighth season as the Tar Heels’ pitching coach.
North Carolina’s director of baseball operations, Dave Arendas, has been married to Holbrook’s sister, Nicole, since 1991. Their son, DC, is a freshman backup middle infielder at USC.
So Holbrook knows the North Carolina coaching staff very well. And he did not like the criticism it received after using weekend starting pitchers on Monday night.
Holbrook was asked a question Wednesday about whether he thought it could help USC that North Carolina’s pitchers might be worn out entering the super regional. That some people had criticized North Carolina’s coaches wasn’t even brought up in the question. But Holbrook, who is almost always calm in interviews, raised the issue himself. You could tell it touched a nerve.
“They know their pitchers and they know their staff,” Holbrook said. “I’m not the coach there in regard to that. I think it’s being blown way out of proportion, to be honest with you. There’s criticism being laid on college coaches for trying to win a regional. Did anybody say anything about Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling throwing on two days rest when they played for the World Series? It’s baseball. You’re competing. You’re trying to win. The criticism, to be quite honest with you, comes from a lot of people that have never coached the game and never been in a dugout, and I don’t think it’s fair.”
“I’m not their coach and I don’t know what the decision-making process (is). Probably Kent Emanuel, he’s an All-American, he’s great pitcher, probably I guarantee you that he was probably fighting his coach to put him in the game, because he felt good and he wanted to go in and he wanted to help his team win. The last thing on (Emanuel’s) mind probably was what was going to happen in a week (in the draft).
“Kudos to that kid. It shows me what type of competitor he is for wanting to be in there, and that’s why they’re where they are, 55-9, because they’ve got kids like that. I have no problem (with the starters throwing Monday). I think the world of their coaches. They’ve handled their pitching staff greatly for a long period of time. I’ve been in that dugout, so I know the thought process that goes on in the pitch counts and I know how they treat their arms. We have the utmost respect for the way they run their program.”
Of course, there are differences between a college-aged prospect with significant pro potential and well-seasoned Major League pitchers like Johnson and Schilling who are already financially set for life. But anyway, that’s what Holbrook had to say about that.
Some more notes from his powwow Wednesday with media swine …
** Holbrook expects to go with Kyle Martin at first base and LB Dantzler at designated hitter again this weekend, as he did in all three regional games last weekend in Columbia.
Martin, who is a better defender than Dantzler, hit 6 for 12 with six runs batted-in in the regional. Dantzler is USC’s best hitter and needed a couple days to adjust to not playing in the field. He went 0 for 8 in the regional’s first two games, then 2 for 4 with two RBI in the final against Liberty.
Entering the regional, Dantzler had started 50 games this season at first base, Martin seven, though he had five starts from May 10-17 as Dantzler nursed a sore shoulder. Martin had just five starts at DH all year entering the regional, Dantzler three. Dantzler also started twice at third base. So he wasn’t used to not being in the field.
“We’ll practice tomorrow and see,” Holbrook said of his mindset for making a final decision on first base. “Our thought process is I’m not going to change it up much. I think we just played some of our best baseball of the year this past weekend and Kyle was a major part of that. I don’t see myself changing that up right now. Some of it might depend on who they pitch. Right now, we’ll stay like we did this past weekend.
“I thought (Martin) was on the cusp all year of doing some great things for us. He just needed some opportunity. I felt like he gives us a strong defender at first base and defense is paramount in NCAA tournament play. You have to play great defense to have a chance to win. I thought it was a bonus the way he swung the bat. He’s been swinging the bat well for us all year pinch hitting. He’s gotten some really big hits for us. I was just putting him in there, to be honest with you, to stabilize our defense. His offensive production was icing on the cake. He had a terrific weekend for us, and we’re going to need him to have another good weekend this weekend.”
** Holbrook also adjusted the lead-off spot in the regional. Graham Saiko had led off 45 times entering the weekend, Max Schrock five, including three times since May 8. But Saiko, who is a right-handed hitter, struggles against righty pitchers. Schrock bats lefty and is better against righty arms. The problem is, Schrock is not a natural lead-off hitter and is not comfortable in the role, Holbrook said. He went 3 for 14 in the regional.
Holbrook said after the regional that he would probably lead off Schrock against righty pitchers and Saiko against leftys, and it sounds like he will stick with that approach entering the super regional, but he isn’t sure yet. If Fox goes with Moss, Emanuel and Johnson this weekend, that’s righty, lefty, lefty – which would mean Schrock, Saiko, Saiko.
“Who leads off, I wrestle with that daily,” Holbrook said. “If I tell you I’m going to lead off Max today, I might change my mind tomorrow. That’s just the truth, because I go back and forth. I’d like to get Graham in there because I want Max hitting in the middle of the lineup, but sometimes I have to play the (lefty/righty) numbers.”
** Speaking of that, North Carolina’s lineup is likely to have six lefty hitters. USC has three lefty starting pitchers. Any advantage there for USC?
“Well, you never know,” Holbrook said. “Our leftys are going to have to pitch good. But it certainly looks like they’ve beaten their fair share of leftys. They’ve done very well against leftys, but some leftys have given them some tough times, too. That doesn’t guarantee us anything. They’ve got some kids that are hitting well over .300 versus leftys. Their lineup is a scary, scary lineup. They can beat you with some power, speed. They have all the ingredients to win a national championship. We’re going to have to play perfect baseball to have a chance to beat them.”
** Everybody now knows about North Carolina’s thrilling wins in the ACC tournament over Clemson and North Carolina, as well as the Florida Atlantic victory.
But Holbrook brought up another comeback from earlier in the season – the final game of a February three-game sweep of Stony Brook, which led 2-0 after five innings. The Tar Heels answered with six in the sixth. Stony Brook got a six spot in the eighth to go up 8-6. Then North Carolina got one in the bottom of the eight and two in the ninth to win 9-8.
“You can’t ever count them out,” Holbrook said. “They’ve got a great offensive team. They’ve come back all year long. There’s no easy out in that lineup. There’s no soft spot. They have a complete team.”
** USC historically has not been very successful in the NCAA tournament on the road – three round victories in 18 tries. But Holbrook believes his team can handle the setting in Chapel Hill.
“Our guys play in the SEC,” he said. “It doesn’t scare us to go on the road. We’ve played in tough environments before. Going to LSU is very difficult, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Florida – we’ve gone and played in tough places. We’re looking at it as another SEC-type road weekend series. We’ve been fortunate around here to win our fair share of road series.
“We know that we have to play well to win on the road. We know we have to make our own breaks and things have to fall our way. We have to create some things on the road that sometimes we might let our fans get us going when we’re at home or we rely on the atmosphere that our fans create. When we go on the road, we have to create every ounce of energy and excitement that we possibly can, but our guys aren’t strangers to that. They know what it’s like to play on the road. It’s going to be a tough environment this weekend. There will be 5,000 people there, but our guys are used to playing in environments like that.”
** Holbrook said before the regional that he hadn’t slept well of late. He knew that USC was expected to win a home regional. As the Gamecocks travel now to play the tournament’s top overall seed, Holbrook knows they are the underdogs – and he is just fine with that. In fact, it has brought him a measure of peace this week.
“I’ve slept good the last three nights and I’m going to sleep good tonight,” he said. “Coaches say this all the time: I don’t have any problem being an underdog. And we’re the underdog this weekend. We’re playing the No. 1 national seed. We’ve got a great opportunity. We don’t have anything to lose. That’s what I’ve told the team: ‘Hey, we’ve got everything to gain here. We have nothing to lose.’ Hopefully, that’ll relax our guys a little bit. It’s relaxed me and let me sleep a little bit better.”