North Carolina(34-25) vs Long Beach State(32-24), 1:00 PM, ESPN3
For the first time since 2010 and only the second time since 2005, the Tar Heels are on the road for an NCAA baseball regional. Third-seeded UNC opens play in the Gainesville Regional against the #2 seed Long Beach State. Mike Fox will send ace Trent Thornton to the mound in hopes of getting the Heels into the winner's bracket of the four team, double-elimination event.
Thornton has not made a full start since May 16th against Miami when he went six innings giving up three runs(one earned) and striking out two. Four days later, Thornton was brought in for a 28-pitch, two inning stint to close out UNC's 4-3 over NC State in the ACC Tournament play-in game and made a similar appearance in the late stages of the Heels' 13-7 win over Maryland last Saturday. Thornton was not sharp against the Terps giving up five hits, allowing two inherited runners to score then giving up three runs himself in just 1.1 innings of work. Still, Thornton has now had close to his normal period of rest and will look to keep Long Beach State in check. From a pitching standpoint, the double-elimination format played out over 3-4 days can be stressful on a pitching staff. UNC getting quality outings from the starting pitcher can only better the odds of winning.
One major point of concern UNC has heading into the regional is the status of shortstop Michael Russell. The junior infielder is the team's leading batter but was sidelined midway through UNC's ACC Tournament game against Florida State with back spasms. Russell did not play two days later against Virginia but returned as the DH in the pool play finale versus Maryland. Even then Russell was clearly hobbled. He had no issues hitting the baseball, collecting a pair of singles but he could barely run down to first. If that back continues to be an issue, Russell clearly won't play shortstop. If Russell has issues running, he can still be effective driving in runs assuming he comes to the plate with runners on base.
The absence of Russell will also put UNC in a tough position with the infield defense. Mike Fox will likely being mixing and matching personnel on the infield. For a team that comes in with an average defense, this could be problematic. The Tar Heels can ill-afford errors in regional play since an unearned run here or there could be the difference between moving on and going home.