John Manuel

Triangle trio all have something to play for in final weekend of regular season

Posted May 17

The ACC's final weekend finds all three Triangle teams in position to finish strong.

Third-ranked North Carolina (42-10, 21-6 ACC) continues to take care of business, with rival Duke (27-25, 11-16) coming to Boshamer Stadium. While Duke seeks to clinch a spot in the 12-team ACC tournament next week in Louisville, the Tar Heels will try to complete a regular season by winning every conference series.

Even the 59-win team in 2013 didn’t accomplish that, and this team has another leg up on that club, the last Tar Heel team to reach the College World Series. The ’13 Heels, powered by first-round pick Colin Moran, Cody Stubbs and Brian Holberton, hit 49 home runs while ranking first in the nation in runs (542) and walks (369) while ranking fifth in runs per game (7.6).

This year’s Heels aren’t quite at that pace, averaging 7.2 runs per game. But they have had more over-the-fence power, with 51 homers already, perhaps owing in part to the current flat-seam baseballs, which carry more than the raised-seam balls did in 2013. Perhaps some credit also should go to assistant coach Scott Forbes, who moved from pitching to hitting this season on the staff, and volunteer assistant Jesse Wierzbicki, who helps with the hitters and throws a mean batting practice.

Or perhaps the credit goes to the players, right?

Brendan Riley’s homer Tuesday against UNC Wilmington in a 7-2 victory was his sixth of the season. That made him the seventh Tar Heel with at least six homers. Shortstop Logan Warmoth has nine, third baseman Kyle Datres seven and five players—Riley, fellow outfielders Brian Miller and Tyler Lynn, DH/second baseman Ashton McGee and second baseman/first baseman Zack Gahagan—have six apiece.

That lineup will try to elevate against Duke No. 2 starter Ryan Day, who has yet to allow a home run all season while posting a 3.23 ERA and limiting opponents to just seven extra-base hits all season. Lefty bats Miller, Lynn, McGee and Riley will have to contend with Duke ace Mitch Stallings on Thursday, with Stallings running a streak of four straight outings in which he’s pitched at least seven innings. According to Duke sports information, lefthanded pitchers such as Stallings and No. 3 starter Adam Laskey have thrown 64 percent of its innings this season, which could be dangerous against Tar Heel righty bats such as Datres, Gahagan and especially Warmoth.

The fact that Warmoth leads the team is something of a surprise, as is the fact that the lightly-recruited Orlando native has emerged as a likely first-round pick. It’s less unlikely the more one watches Warmoth, who didn’t even play shortstop in high school but has few holes in his game and grades as solid-average or better on the major league scouting scale across the board for hitting, speed, defense, arm strength and even power. Warmoth said Tuesday that due to the strength of his high school and travel-ball teams, he usually played left field as a sophomore and junior and second base when he got to play infield.

He’s been the Tar Heel shortstop since Wood Myers (now at Coastal Carolina) broke his leg eight games into the 2015 season. And while Warmoth’s defense was ahead of his offense, his bat has definitely caught up.

Carolina will try to get righties J.B. Bukauskas and Gianluca Dalatri back on track after so-so outings last weekend at Virginia Tech.

With this series running Thursday through Saturday in anticipation of next week’s conference tournament, the Tar Heels will keep Bukauskas and Dalatri on regular rest, pushing them to the second and third starts of the weekend with TBA for Thursday’s game. Expect Carolina to use righthander Taylor Sugg, who pitched into the fourth inning Sunday at Tech. Righties Rodney Hutchison (one pitch Tuesday), Jason Morgan, Austin Bergner and Bo Weiss all pitched against UNCW, and Brett Daniels, closer Josh Hiatt and the versatile Hutchison are too important in relief roles to burn in the series opener.

With six shutout innings Tuesday, though, freshman righty Tyler Baum (5-0, 2.75) improved his case to start the team’s ACC tournament opener and to perhaps start a regional game, essentially as the Tar Heels’ No. 3 starter. Baum’s fastball sat in the 90-92 mph range, his best velocity in weeks, and he has a good feel for his curveball and changeup.

Pack Playing For Regionals

While Warmoth’s nine homers lead UNC, they don’t measure up to those of fellow Triangle shortstop Joe Dunand, who has 16 to rank 14th nationally. Dunand has hit homers all season, but he’s also hit 10 doubles in the last month, since entering the Florida State series with zero in that column. In fact, seven of his doubles have come in ACC play.

That means more consistent hard contact from the Pack junior shortstop, who projects to go in the third-to-fifth-round range of the MLB draft when the three-day proceedings begin June 12.

Dunand’s more potent bat has helped key the Wolfpack’s resurgence, with consecutive sweeps of ACC series at home against Virginia Tech and on the road last weekend at Pittsburgh. At 31-21 and 14-13 in the ACC, the Wolfpack hosts Clemson this weekend, with the Tigers coming off consecutive ACC sweeps at the hands of Carolina and Louisville.

Clemson will be desperate to end its skid; coach Elliott Avent said the Wolfpack will be playing for a chance to not just earn a regional bid but perhaps more.

If State were to lose the home series or even be swept, its .500 conference record (or worse) would make a strong run in the league tournament in Louisville next week a must. If the Pack wins the series, though, or sweeps it, State would be at 16 or 17 conference wins. Could that even position the Wolfpack to be a regional host, when combined with a strong showing in the league tournament?

Both teams have plenty to play for, in other words.

While Dunand has heated up, the key to State’s revival (11 wins in its last 12) has been veteran pitching. Senior righthanders Johnny Piedmonte and Joe O’Donnell, either hurt or ineffective in the first half, have rounded into form in the second half, with O’Donnell having tossed 12.1 scoreless innings in seven appearances during the 11-1 spurt, with 19 strikeouts. He’s become the team’s go-to reliever, with Piedmonte the No. 1 starter ahead of competitive junior Brian Brown. While Brown missed time early with biceps tendinitis, he’s back to being the Brown (3-1, 3.29) the Pack saw in his first two seasons, albeit with a slightly higher walk rate.

“We’ve got a lot to play for this weekend,” Avent said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. “We’ve played well lately, which is the big thing. We just have to keep it going and stay confident.”

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