Tuesday, April 03, 2007

2007 UNC Baseball team is dominating

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, March 31st:

It breaks our hearts that when we turn the television on CBS tonight Roy Williams won’t be there.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Tar Heel fans won’t get a chance to see our beloved coach today.

There isn’t enough space in this column for me to enumerate all the reasons I love Roy Williams, but one of them is how supportive he is of the UNC baseball team. Lots of folks probably saw him on ESPN in Omaha during the College World Series last year. Fewer folks know that when UNC went to play a road series at Duke last April, Roy was picnicking with his wife on the first base line in Durham.

Far from a bandwagon fan, he’s been to at least four games so far this season, including Wednesday night’s 28-3 thumping of Davidson.

When he heads out to Boshamer Stadium, he sees quite a show. As vaunted as last year’s national runner up was, this year’s team is actually off to an even better start.

Folks thought we would have trouble recovering from the loss of star pitchers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard to the pros, but so far we haven’t skipped a beat. Robert Woodard was the most consistent if least hyped pitcher of last year’s starting trio and moves further up the list for various UNC pitching records every time he takes the hill. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 47th round last summer, he should move a lot further up in the draft order this time around.

The rotation is rounded out by freshman Alex White and last year’s midweek starter Luke Putkonen. White has pitched better than I ever remember Bard or Miller pitching as a freshman. He is already a star, and it’s hard to comprehend how good he’ll be pitching for the Tar Heels in two years (in baseball, once you go to college you have to stay three years before going to the pros.) Putkonen has adjusted well to the tougher hitters he faces in the weekend games, with an undefeated record so far on the season.

The real excitement this team is providing though is with their bats. Freshman Dustin Ackley immediately became my favorite player on the team in the second game of the season when he blooped a hit to short left center field and ran it out into a double. I liked his hustle then, now I like even more that he is batting an amazing near 500.

Maybe the best example to show how much punch this team has is that catcher Benji Johnson, a Chatham County native, hit two home runs on Wednesday night- off the bench!

Left fielder Reid Fronk always seems to find a way to get on base. In an exciting late February game against nationally ranked Coastal Carolina, he got hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in extra innings to win it. Second baseman Garrett Gore is in the lineup for his stellar defense, but he is markedly improved with the bat and hit his first career home run earlier this week. Third baseman Chad Flack is struggling but will doubtless soon get back to the star form that launched UNC into the College World Series with a dramatic home run against Alabama last spring.

The outfield positions are an embarrassment of riches with a menu of choices including freshmen Drew Poulk and Tim Fedroff, who have each already shown an ability to hit for power, the speedy Mike Cavasinni who started in center field during most of last year’s championship run, and Seth Williams who provides both solid defense and a steady bat.

Orange County’s own Josh Horton is likely to be a first round draft pick this spring and continues to provide a hot bat at the shortstop position. After spending the summer with Team USA, catcher Tim Federowicz is now doing double duty as a strong relief pitcher while continuing to hit well and play solid defense.

Bottom line, this team is loaded, fun to watch, and primed to take care of last season’s unfinished business.

I can’t promise ‘ol Roy will be there this afternoon, but the Tar Heels are at home each of the next two days against in conference rival Wake Forest. Personally I think there’s no better spring experience in Chapel Hill than enjoying a game at the Bosh on a warm spring night, and the opportunity to do that presents itself each of the next four Tuesday nights at 6 PM.

It was a disappointing end to the basketball season but between the women’s basketball team’s trip to the final four in Cleveland this weekend and this outstanding baseball team there’s plenty of sun on the horizon for Tar Heel fans.

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