As the baseball season gets under way for the defending ACC champions here are five things you'll need to know about the upcoming season.
1. Youth will be served
This is a young team. Looking at Baseball America's preview capsule, the projected starting lineup includes three freshmen and three sophomores to go along with one junior and two seniors. There is also the possibility of a freshman filling one of the weekend rotation spots. Obviously this isn't unexpected given how experienced the 2013 team was. UNC saw a lot of talent either graduate or get taken in the MLB Draft making this season a bit of a rebuilding year. Still, the cupboard is not completely bear and Mike Fox's teams have been consistent in recruiting talented players who can make an impact from day one. Obviously UNC will need that to happen to fill in the gaps created by last season's attrition.
The youth movement will be spearheaded by 1B Joe Dudek. The New Jersey native was named Rawlings Third Team All-American in high school. During the Fall World Series, Dudek hit two home runs. Likewise, fellow New Jersey native and freshman pitcher Zac Gallens also had a solid outing during the Fall World Series.
Overall the 2014 roster includes 25 freshmen and sophomores including 13 players in their first season at UNC.
2. Trent Thornton moves to Friday
After spending a season working mostly as a dominant closer, Trent Thornton will become UNC's Friday starter. Thornton was 12-1 last season with a 1.37 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 91.2 IP. This is also not a case where Thornton will need to really transition much from closer to starter. Thornton had six starts in 2013 to go along with a handful of long outings from the bullpen. Thornton took over for Benton Moss in a rain delayed 6-2 win over Clemson pitching 6.1 innings and giving up two unearned runs. In the ACC Tournament game vs NC State with all the attention on the Wolfpack's Carlos Rodon, Thornton came in for 6.2 innings of no-hit relief while striking out seven and walking two. And with UNC's season on the line, Thornton started against LSU in a College World Series elimination game giving up two earned runs in seven innings. The Heels won that game 4-2.
Although Thornton is only a sophomore, he has already shown that "it" factor in pressure situations. Conventional wisdom said he should excel as UNC's weekend ace filling in nicely for the departed Kent Emanuel. The aforementioned Moss will be the elder of the starting rotation in his third season. Moss has been fairly solid in his first two seasons but with his MLB Draft eligibility on deck this season will be an excellent opportunity for him to raise his stock.
3. Closing the deal
With Thornton moving to the starting rotation, a new closer will be needed. Chris McCue is set to fill that role and showed at times last season he is more than capable of handling the job. McCue was huge in two notable postseason games in 2013. In the epic 18-inning game versus NC State during the ACC Tournament, McCue pitched three innings of one hit ball in extra innings including getting back-to-back strikeouts with the winning run at third and the bases loaded. The second of those Ks came on a 3-2 pitch. Against LSU in the College World Series, McCue got the save to help keep the Tar Heel season alive. For 2013, McCue was 7-1 with a 2.13 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 63.1 IP.
In addition to McCue, UNC will rely on Trevor Kelley, Reilly Hovis, Luis Paula and Tate Parrish to fill the innings and all pitched well last season with the exception of Paula. Taylore Cherry is also an intriguing prospect for this season. Cherry, as you may recall, started the ACC Championship game following UNC's 18-inning 2-1 win over NC State just nine hours before. Cherry, who is 6-8 and 270 lbs, pitched admirably in a tough spot helping the Heels win the ACC title. Besides the returning players, there is a good chance one of the six incoming pitchers will see some time out of the bullpen as well.
4. Sophomores take the lead
While UNC will rely on some of the newcomers and veterans like Michael Russell and Parks Jordan shouldn't be overlooked, the sophomore duo of Landon Lassiter and Skye Bolt will be central to UNC's success this season. Lassiter will likely move to third base after spending a season at DH while ACC player of the year Colin Moran held down the hot corner. Lassiter was second in batting as a freshman with a .358 average, 3 home runs and 28 RBIs. Lassiter also stole eight times on twelve attempts. Lassiter routinely batted second behind senior Chaz Frank.
While Lassiter had a stellar first season, Bolt is the player that tends to get more of the attention. Maybe it's the name but the sophomore outfielder is set to build on a 2013 season where he batted .321 with six home runs and 51 RBIs. The RBI total was fourth on the team however Bolt missed 17 games thanks to a broken bone in his foot. Barring another injury, Bolt is primed to have a huge season at the plate.
5. Easing into the schedule
Knowing how much he lost and how young his team would be Mike Fox put together a schedule that originally intended for UNC to play its first 16 games at Boshamer Stadium. The recent winter weather which postponed the UNC-Duke basketball game also forced the season opening series with College of Charleston to be moved to Charleston starting on Saturday. Nevertheless, UNC has a less than daunting schedule eight home games before ACC play opens with Pittsburgh in early March.
Even then, UNC's ACC schedule is backloaded in terms of quality. UNC faces Pitt, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Duke, Boston College and Wake Forest before the schedule takes a decided turn towards the better teams in ACC play. After playing a midweek non-conference game versus NC State on April 15th, UNC faces preseason #1 Virginia, 2013 ACC runner-up Virginia Tech, FSU and closes the season with a road trip to Miami where the Heels have had trouble in the past winning.
For the most part the schedule works out well for UNC. It should provide enough time for a young team to get its footing before facing the ACC's stronger teams. UNC doesn't face an ACC team picked third or higher in their division until after the April 15th game with NC State. The Tar Heels do not play either the Wolfpack or traditional power Clemson in league play. Seven of UNC's ten ACC series are against teams picked fourth or worse in their respective divisions including the teams picked sixth and seventh in both divisions.
In other words, UNC's young team caught a bit of a break with the schedule as UNC looks to live up to their preseason national ranking of 17th and second place finish in the Coastal Division.