Lucas: A Team Effort
DURHAM--The architect of this incredible pitching performance needed to explain how this happened. Carolina pitching coach Scott Forbes had just watched his Tar Heel pitchers breeze through what had been a red-hot Virginia Tech offense in the ACC championship game, claiming a 4-1 victory and the tournament title to go with the regular season crown the Heels already held.
Surely, this must have required some amazing tactical adjustments. Forbes sat down on Sunday morning around 2:30 a.m., after his pitching staff had just thrown 32 innings against Clemson and NC State, and had to figure out a way to piece together a title-worthy performance. He'd have to do so without his three weekend starters, his closer/fireman and his fourth starter, all of whom had already thrown significant innings in helping Carolina to a 3-0 record in Durham.
Oh, and he had to come up with some answers in less than 11 hours, because the first pitch was 1 p.m.
Faced with such a thorny predicament, what did Forbes do? This was a rare chance to get inside the mind of a coach making a championship-level decision. Coach, tell us how it happened:
"Well," he said with a grin, "first, I hammered two peanut butter sandwiches. I was starving."
OK. And then what?
"Then I looked at the computer to see what we had. One of the traits of our pitching staff and of our team in general is they want to win. I knew guys were going to come up to me and tell me they were ready to pitch."
He was right. Kent Emanuel, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, was especially persistent.
"Kent didn't ask me every inning if he could pitch," Forbes said. "He asked me every pitch if he could pitch."
The answer was no, every time, which is why pitchers like Emanuel keep enrolling at Carolina. Forbes and head coach Mike Fox wanted to win, but not at the expense of the health of their pitchers or their preparation for the NCAA Tournament. With certain players rendered unavailable by those two factors, the coaching staff thought they had about five legitimate pitching options who were healthy and available. That's five possible arms out of a 27-man postseason roster; five possible arms with the ACC title resting on them.
The first call went to Taylore (the extra "e" is for "enormous") Cherry, a freshman who had thrown a grand total of 3.1 innings this season. The righty tossed five innings of one-run baseball, getting his first career win in the conference championship game. The key moment came in the fifth with Carolina holding a 2-0 lead, as, the Hokies loaded the bases with two outs for Chad Pinder.
One of Virginia Tech's hottest hitters and an all-ACC selection, Pinder ran the count to 3-2.
"We weren't going to let him beat us on an offspeed pitch," Forbes said. "I wanted a fastball away. But Taylore talked to Matt Roberts and they wanted to throw a fastball in. That takes some big-time guts to throw that pitch to that hitter."
On the 3-2 count, with the crowd of over 8,000 roaring, Cherry fired an inside two-seam fastball at 86 miles per hour.
Pinder fouled it down the third-base line.
So the freshman had to do it again. On the next 3-2 pitch, Cherry fired another inside fastball.
Pinder fouled it down the third-base line.
The next 3-2 pitch grabbed just a fraction too much of the plate. Pinder crushed it...foul.
Now the Virginia Tech fans were roaring a chorus of "Let's Go!" and answering with "Hokies!" Cherry and catcher Matt Roberts had a quick conference. Most in the crowd were hoping the Tar Heels would throw anything other than the pitch that had just been smoked off the wall in foul territory. But the Carolina battery knew differently.
"Forbes wanted to go outside," Roberts said. "But I called the inside fastball, because based on his swing that was our best option. He was diving just a little bit because we had thrown him outside all day, and he might have been looking for it. And Taylore got it in there great."
He did. This particular fastball was down more than it was in, but it was down enough that Pinder pounded it into the dirt. Michael Russell gobbled it up at shortstop and threw to first to retire the side, ending Virginia Tech's best threat of the afternoon.
On a day when the Tar Heels thought they might need a bevy of arms--before the game, position players were joking about their availability on the mound, but the jokes had a touch of seriousness to them, because really, after the last two days, you couldn't rule out the possibility that, say, Brian Holberton might need to throw an inning--they needed just two. Trevor Kelley breezed through the final four innings to get his second career save.
It's not amazing, really, that the Tar Heel pitching staff gave up just eight earned runs in 49 innings in the ACC Tournament. What's amazing is that it wasn't just outstanding performances from one or two hot pitchers. It was everyone. Eleven different Tar Heels took the mound in Durham; that's every single pitcher on the postseason roster.
Do you realize how incredibly rare it is to use the entire pitching staff in an event like this? Now, do you realize how incredibly unheard of it is to throw every single arm--and have them all be productive?
"We have so much competition within the staff," said senior Chris Munnelly, who threw three scoreless innings against NC State. "We go so deep in the bullpen. Everybody is a good pitcher. When we go out there, the hard work pays off. The mentality is that whoever goes out there is going to throw the ball exactly where they want to."
Tomorrow, Carolina learns its postseason destination. Regional sites are announced tonight, and the Tar Heels are a virtual certainty to play in Chapel Hill. The bracket is unveiled tomorrow at noon, when Carolina will enter the NCAA Tournament as the regular season and tournament champions of one of the best baseball conferences in the country.
Asked separately about that pair of achievements, Roberts and Munnelly both said the exact same phrase:
"It's a testament to our hard work."
Maybe they can even celebrate with a peanut butter sandwich.
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly.