John Manuel

ACC play gets underway for diamond trio

Posted March 10

UNC's Kyle Datres (#8) against Duke on March 19, 2016.
(Photo By: Beth Jewell/WRAL Contributor)

North Carolina had as successful a non-conference season as it could in 2016, but in the end, it didn’t matter.

The Tar Heels went 34-21 overall in the regular season but just 13-17 in ACC play, a half-game back of Georgia Tech and tied for 10th with Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons owned the tiebreaker, and when UNC failed to qualify for the ACC tournament, it was left out of the NCAA tournament, despite a top 20 RPI.

So the fact that No. 17 North Carolina is off to a 10-3 non-conference start entering league play, which begins at Boshamer Stadium on Friday when Virginia (12-1) comes to town, matters little. What matters is how the Tar Heels are playing, and last Sunday, after they avoided a sweep by beating Long Beach State 8-5, coach Mike Fox thought the series helped prepare the Heels for league play, exposing some weaknesses and forcing the Heels to make needed adjustments.

“This was a good series for us,” Fox said. “We had to respond (in the finale) to what they were doing, the style (Long Beach State) played. At first, we didn’t do a good job of it . . . but that kind of thing will help us. We saw we can play good defense, but that we can play even better defense, potentially, and that we need to do that.”

Carolina had made just two errors entering the weekend, then made four in Friday night’s loss. The Heels are still experimenting in the infield lineup. Minnesota prep product Michael Busch has started most of the season at first base, but the freshman gave way to fellow freshman Ike Freeman in Tuesday’s midweek win against VCU, with Freeman playing second base and Zach Gahagan moving to first. The right-handed-hitting Freeman had his first two collegiate hits in Sunday’s finale, including a solo home run, and Fox said Freeman may get more playing time against Virginia, whose pitching staff is heavy with left-handers.

“We needed a part, and he gives us another option,” Fox said of Freeman. “He’s got some ability. He keeps his mouth closed and just practices hard and plays hard. Even his outs that he has made have been (hit) hard.”

Third baseman Kyle Datres, who leads the team with 13 RBIs, and freshman Ashton McGee, an option at first base, also are in the infield mix, but the constant for the Tar Heels is junior shortstop Logan Warmoth, who likely will be drafted in the first three rounds in June.

“He’s gotten better and better, and he really takes care of himself. He’s mentally tougher, he brings energy,” Fox said. “He works hard, he lifts hard. He does not take an at-bat off. He’s really made himself into a really good player for us and for the draft.”

The team’s top position player, Warmoth is off to a scintillating .367/.429/.592 start with two of the team’s seven homers. He’s also stolen seven bases in as many tries and had yet to commit an error in 49 chances.

“They are very athletic up the middle,” Long Beach State coach Troy Buckley said, “and it starts with the shortstop. He’s a really good player, and he’s a really good hitter.”

The Tar Heel outfield remains unsettled on the corners around center fielder Brian Miller (.291/.350/.436), with left-handed-hitting Brandon Riley and Tyler Lynn factors the most frequent starters in right and left field. Right-handed bats such as freshman Brandon Martorano (2-for-22), who catches on Sundays for fellow Jersey freshman Lucas Dalatri, and senior Adam Pate (1-for-17), could get starts to try to get their cold bats going.

The series is scheduled for three games, with a Friday 3:30 lid lifter now being followed by a doubleheader Saturday scheduled for noon, as both clubs hope to get the series in ahead of expected wintry weather entering the area.

The series matches two of the three most successful active Division I coaches in the country. Fox has a .732 career winning percentage, second only to Florida State’s Mike Martin. Virginia coach Brian O’Connor, whose 2015 team won the national championship, ranks third at .727.

Pack Visits Wake; Duke Hosts Hokies

Duke (8-7) started the year 0-4 but has heated up since, including a four-game sweep last weekend against Princeton. However, the pitching-and-defense Blue Devils get a big test when slugging Virginia Tech (9-6) visits DBAP for a three-game set, scheduled for Friday and a Saturday doubleheader.

Virginia Tech has hit 32 home runs, more than any team in the country. For comparisons sake, Duke hit 27 homers all season last year. The Hokies have lost five of their last six, however, including a four-game sweep at home last weekend to America East Conference favorite Binghamton.

Duke continues to shuffle its weekend starts among several veterans and freshman lefty Adam Laskey. Ryan Day, who has made three starts at second base, also starts in the weekend and is off to a strong start with a 2-1, 2.08 mark while going just 1-for-12 at the plate.

He and erstwhile closer Mitch Stallings have moved into the rotation, while dependable grad student Nick Hendrix helps lead a bullpen that has found new setup options for junior Jack Labosky, who shifts from third base to closer when Duke has a late lead. Six-foot-5 senior righty Karl Blum has found his niche, tossing 12 scoreless innings out of the pen thus far.

NC State, off to a disappointing 7-6 start, is ranked 20th heading into a series at Wake Forest, also scheduled for Friday with a Saturday doubleheader. The Pack rebounded from a 9-8 home loss Monday to Western Carolina with an 8-5 road win Wednesday at UNC Wilmington. State has won 14 consecutive series' against the Demon Deacons, who are off to a 10-4 start and have more experienced, more dependable pitching than it has had in recent years thanks to right-handers Parker Dunshee and Donnie Sellers.

The Wolfpack is still searching for consistent pitching but hopes to get a shot in the arm this weekend with the return of junior left-hander Brian Brown to the rotation. Brown tossed his first two innings of the season last weekend and is slated to start Saturday, while freshman righty Dalton Feeney—who provided the only win of State’s home slate last weekend against UMass-Lowell—will start the series finale.

One item to watch will be State’s infield defense. Junior shortstop Joe Dunand committed two errors in the first five innings of the Western Carolina loss, and freshman Will Wilson shifted from second base to shortstop in the UNCW win. Dunand’s right-handed bat is a must in the Pack lineup, but he could shift back to his freshman position of third base or even play first, where the Wolfpack has been rotating a cast of characters including Shane Shepherd, Tommy DeJuneas and Jack Conley.

Another name to watch is sophomore Christian Demby, who homered and doubled against the Catamounts in his first start as a DH on Monday. Demby also has made two mid-week starts, but his power right-handed bat may be tough to keep out of the lineup.

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