For North Carolina to get past South Carolina in this weekend’s super regional and advance to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series, the Tar Heels will have to go through a familiar face in the opposing dugout.
South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook, in his first season leading the Gamecocks, is a former UNC player and assistant coach. He spent 10 seasons under Tar Heel coach Mike Fox before heading to South Carolina, where he spent four years as an assistant coach before getting the head-coaching gig.
UNC and South Carolina play Friday at 1 p.m., Saturday at noon and Sunday at 1 p.m., if necessary, with a trip to the College World Series on the line.
Holbrook inherited the most successful college baseball program of the past three years when he was promoted. The Gamecocks won back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011 before falling to Arizona in the World Series final last season.
This year, things haven’t been as prosperous for the Holbrook and the Gamecocks. South Carolina finished the regular season 42-18 and in second place of the SEC East. The Gamecocks were eliminated early in the SEC Tournament by losses to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
South Carolina’s regional went far smoother than UNC’s, though, as the Gamecocks swept the weekend to advance to the Chapel Hill super regional. They beat St. Louis once and Liberty twice to escape the weekend unscathed.
The Gamecocks’ roster is far different than the type college baseball fans grew accustomed to during South Carolina’s mini-dynasty of the previous three years. Boasting no elite professional prospects or even an All-SEC player, Holbrook leans heavily on his pitching staff to get the job done.
Freshman ace Jordan Montgomery leads the way for South Carolina and will likely get the ball in one of the first two games of the super regional. For the season, he boasts a 5-1 record with a 1.67 ERA. Nolan Belcher, a 7-5 pitcher with a 2.25 ERA, will also likely get a start against the Tar Heels. In the bullpen, Tyler Webb has 17 saves for the season, and Adam Westmoreland, Patrick Sullivan, Jack Wynkoop and Colby Holmes provide reliable arms.
Overall, South Carolina’s pitching compares favorably to UNC’s staff, which is considered one of the best in the nation. The Tar Heels have a team-wide 2.69 ERA and allow batters to hit .210. The Gamecocks bring a 3.01 ERA and a .253 opponent average to the table.
It remains to be seen how Fox will use his pitchers. Kent Emanuel has been UNC’s opening-game starter all season, but he tossed 175 pitches in the regional and may need an extended rest. Benton Moss will likely start either the Friday or Saturday game, and Hobbs Johnson would be available for the third game, if necessary.
It’s not UNC’s pitching that Tar Heel fans should be fretting, though. While the Tar Heels brought a dynamic offense to the plate throughout the season, the bats haven’t been able to produce as many runs as of late. UNC’s offensive woes peaked in the regional weekend, when it left 45 runners on base during the four games, including 15 in the game three loss to FAU.
At the center of those hitting woes is UNC’s power duo of Colin Moran and Skye Bolt. The two hit .348 and .341, respectively, and drove in a combined 135 runs for the season. The two combined to hit 7-34 (.205) for just four RBIs during the regional weekend. Bolt was bumped down to seventh in the order, swapping places with catcher Brian Holberton, for the decisive second game against FAU. With the way South Carolina’s pitchers can toss it, UNC needs better production from Bolt and Moran, a Golden Spikes Award finalist.
On the flipside, South Carolina’s bats aren’t exceptional, but they’re good enough to put runs across the plate. The Gamecocks had the fourth-highest team batting average among SEC teams. Their offense is more boom or bust, as their 51 home runs placed them first in the SEC. Designated hitter LB Dantzler and shortstop Joey Pankake bring the power to the Gamecocks’ order.
Although South Carolina has recent postseason success on its side, the super regional is still UNC’s to lose. This Gamecock squad isn’t as powerful as its recent teams, and UNC holds an advantage in nearly every category. If the Tar Heel pitchers can recover by the weekend, and if Moran and Bolt can start to click again, the nation’s No. 1 team should be moving on to Omaha.