UNC Begins Challenging Conclusion Against NC State

Junior third baseman Colin Moran leads the ACC with a .514 on-base percentage
Junior third baseman Colin Moran leads the ACC with a .514 on-base percentage

The North Carolina Tar Heels have been the most dominant team in NCAA baseball this season. However, they face a tough road to finish the regular season, which will test the top-ranked team in the nation.

For the entirety of the season, the Tar Heels have remained at or near the top of every national ranking in college baseball. As of April 24, North Carolina was eighth in the nation in batting average, fourth in slugging percentage, tied for 12th in home runs, and third in earned run average.

The Tar Heels have outscored opponents by an average of 6.2 runs per game. In 43 games, North Carolina has scored at least 10 runs on 19 occasions while holding opponents to fewer than two runs in 15 games. Perhaps most important of all, they were the first team to 40 wins, defeating Charlotte 10-2 Wednesday to improve to 40-3..

Junior Colin Moran has led the offense for North Carolina. The third-baseman has 10 home runs in 2013, batting .395 with a conference-best .514 on-base percentage. He has also improved his .926 fielding percentage as a sophomore to .961 this season, an area of concern in previous seasons.

On the mound, North Carolina boasts one of the nation’s best pitching staffs, holding opposing bats to a .201 average. Weekend starters Kent Emanuel, Benton Moss, and Hobbs Johnson all have sub-3.00 earned run averages, and freshman Trent Thornton has moved into the team’s closer role with his ACC-best 0.88 ERA, including five mid-week starts and 6 1/3 shutout innings in a game against Clemson after rain ended Moss’ outing early.

UNC has kept winning even with an injury to freshman outfielder Skye Bolt. Bolt fouled a pitch off his right foot during the Tar Heels’ series sweep of Virginia Tech, breaking the second metatarsal. Bolt was batting .392 for North Carolina, with 41 runs batted in, 10 doubles, and six home runs.

North Carolina will face its toughest tests of the season over the next three weekends, though. The Tar Heels will travel to Raleigh this weekend to face a streaking NC State Wolfpack squad, followed by a road series against divisional rival Georgia tech and a home set against fellow top-five team Virginia.

This weekend, No. 6 NC State will host the Tar Heels in a rivalry series with extra intensity on this occasion. The Wolfpack currently ride a 15-game winning streak, the longest of its kind in the nation. The run includes conference sweeps of Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech. North Carolina also has a streak of 17 consecutive road wins, dating back to April 8, 2012 against Miami.

The Wolfpack is led on the field by shortstop Trea Turner, who has been sensational since returning from an injury suffered against Clemson. Six of NC State’s 10 losses this season came with Turner out of the lineup, and he is doing his best to make up for lost time. Turner is batting .438, the second-best average in the nation, and rides a 13-game hitting streak.

Next weekend, the Tar Heels will travel to Atlanta to face the No. 20 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. While their pitching has been suspect at times (their 4.22 ERA and .258 opposing batting average are both ninth in the conference), the offense has been one of the best in the conference behind sluggers such as Daniel Palka and Zane Evans. Palka and Evans have combined to drive in 89 Yellow Jacket runs this season, thanks in part to 11 home runs each (tied for the ACC lead and 10th in the NCAA).

North Carolina will close the season against Virginia, currently ranked fifth by Baseball America. The Cavaliers sit two games behind the Tar Heels in the Coastal Division standings entering this weekend, which means this finale could decide a divisional champion. Virginia is the only team other than UNC to rank in the conference’s top three in both batting average and ERA. The Cavaliers are also coming off a three-game sweep of No. 10 Florida State, their third ACC sweep and sixth series win in seven weekends.

The Tar Heels may be the team to beat right now in college baseball. However, they will have some tough obstacles to overcome over the next three weeks to maintain a grasp on the top national ranking and erase any doubts skeptics may have about their performance.

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