Tomorrow marks the start of the NCAA baseball national postseason. For the second consecutive year, UNC will host a Regional as they welcome Purdue, Houston, and North Carolina A&T to the Bosh. The Heels will be looking to avenge last season’s shocking exit when they lost to Davidson twice in the double-elimination opening round. Here’s a quick look at the four teams taking the field tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday.
North Carolina (#6 overall)
Record: 38-18, 22-8 ACC, #1 seed in ACC tournament
What to know: The Heels entered the season with high expectations, only to stumble out of the gate with a mediocre 7-7 record. They corrected their course, at one point winning 19 of 22 games. That stretch was punctuated by the program’s first ever sweep of NC State in Raleigh. Their strong finish gave ACC Coach of the Year Mike Fox’s program a share of their first regular season title since 2013, which was also the last time they earned a trip to Omaha. A quick exit from the ACC tournament (thanks to a quirky format and stellar defense by Pittsburgh) may have some fans concerned, but there is plenty of reason for optimism thanks to a late season key addition.
Who to know: Starting sophomore RHP Gianluca Dalatri almost saw his season cut short after an elbow injury flared up after two starts. Fortunately, he recovered and returned to the mound against Virginia Tech in the final ACC series of the season. Dalatri responded with a 4.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 3 K performance. In his two appearances, he has a box score of 9.0 IP, 4 H, 0 R, and 11 Ks. His presence will hopefully bolster a UNC pitch staff that has been inconsistent throughout the season.
For more on Dalatri’s return, check out this piece by Marilyn Payne of WRAL.
Record: 37-19, 17-6 Big Ten, #2 seed in Big Ten Tournament
What to know: The Boilermakers are short on NCAA Tournament experience as they make just their third ever appearance in the postseason. However, this team has been red hot having won 21 of their last 24 games, including a sweep of Michigan in the final series of the regular season. Oddly, not one Boilermaker was named to the first or second all-Big Ten teams.
If you’re looking for a reason to be skeptical though (and after last year’s Davidson debacle, I’d exercise caution) just remember they hail from the Big Ten. Only one team from that conference has made it to Omaha in the past 33 seasons — Indiana in 2013.
Who to know: Most will probably point to 1B Jacson McGowan’s .302 batting average, 12 HRs, and 56 RBI. Instead, I’d like to introduce you to Nick Dalesandro. The catcher is second on the team in hits (63), and third in batting average (.304), runs (42), and total bases (86). However, he’s at best when on the base path. The speedster has successfully stolen 26 bases in 29 attempts. Purdue will be in position to steal a few runs if teams can’t keep him close to the bag.
Record: 36-23, 16-8 AAC, #1 seed in AAC tournament
What to know: These Cougars may pose the greatest threat to prevent the Heels from getting out of Chapel Hill. Don’t be fooled by their relatively pedestrian record. Houston won the AAC regular season, thanks to a 3-game sweep of ECU in Greenville. That’s the same ECU team that grabbed two out of three games when UNC came to visit early in the season. With NCAA Regional appearances in four of the last five years, this team also has the experience necessary to navigate the road environment.
There is hope for optimism for their opponents as they meandered to a mediocre 8-7 record over their last 15 games. If you believe in momentum being important for post-season runs, the Cougars may not make it past Saturday.
Who to know: Houston boasts a deadly 1-2 punch on the mound. 2018 AAC Pitcher of the year Aaron Fletcher is joined by 2017 AAC Pitcher of the Year Trey Cumbie. In double-elimination format, having two dynamic pitchers can give a team a significant advantage over a weekend.
Fletcher enters the weekend with a 6-3 record and a team leading 2.56 ERA. His 76 strikeouts in 85.1 innings are second on the team. Cumbie complements Fletcher with a 7-3 record and 101 strikeouts in 96.2 innings (all of which lead the team). UNC’s offense has been known to go silent at key stretches this season. The Cougars will present another challenge.
North Carolina A&T
Record: 32-23, 16-8 MEAC
What to know: The Aggies and Heels already met once this season, with UNC prevailing in the mid-week matchup by a score of 1-0. So, the MEAC representatives know they can hang with the boys in Chapel Hill. That should give them some confidence heading into tomorrow’s showdown — not that they should need it. Last weekend they stormed through the MEAC tournament with a whopping 39 runs in three days. Acknowledging the level of competition of the MEAC is a little below the ACC, any team that scores that many runs is a threat to steal a game or two.
It is the Aggies’ third ever appearance in an NCAA Regional, and first since 2005. They’ll be loose, confident, and playing in their home state. That sounds unsettlingly familiar to another underdog from last year’s tournament.
Who to know: Sticking with the pitching theme in this post, UNC fans should take note of A&T’s starting pitcher for Friday. Tim Luth is 6-2 with a 3.55 ERA, and will try to continue the offensive struggles the Heels’ experienced in their first meeting. With only 56 strikeouts in 88.2 innings, Luth isn’t overpowering but with teams hitting just .240 against him, he has been effective. He has only allowed 5 or more runs just twice this season.
That’s a key stat for UNC. In games that UNC scored 5 runs or less, they are 6-18. When the Heels score more than 5 runs, they are undefeated at 32-0.
The Heels open up postseason play against at the Bosh against North Carolina A&T on Friday at 2 P.M. For additional information on each team, check out this preview by Baseball America and this breakdown on UNC’s official athletic website.