Can Mike Papi secure the ACC batting title against the league’s best pitching staff? Does Joe McCarthy outplay Skye Bolt and Landon Lassiter to take ACC Freshman of the Year honors? With two of the best offenses in the country, will each game turn into first to 10 wins? How high are the stakes for a national seed?
Oh, and who will take the ACC Coastal Division title?
At 6 p.m., tonight, No. 7 Virginia and No. 3 North Carolina will throw out the first pitch to a three-game set with endless storylines. Chapel Hill’s Boshamer Stadium will host one of college baseball’s most anticipated series of 2013.
In fact, what’s missing from the pre-series hype?
“Nothing, really,” UNC coach Mike Fox said with a laugh. “You’re exactly right. This has it all.”
Virginia (43-8, 20-7 ACC) needs a sweep to capture the Coastal. North Carolina (46-6, 20-5) needs just one win.
The Cavaliers and Tar Heels took different paths to get here. UVa was ranked in the top 25 in just one of the preseason polls and didn’t crack the top 10 until late March. UNC was the preseason No. 1 and held that position until dropping two of three at Georgia Tech last weekend.
By the numbers, the comparisons are near-equal. Virginia is first in the ACC in batting (.317), North Carolina is second (.310). The Cavs are fourth in the ACC in pitching (2.99 ERA), the Heels are first (2.39). UVa leads the league in slugging percentage (.470) and RBI (397), UNC (.462, 387) is second in both of the categories. Carolina leads the league in on-base percentage (.421) and runs scored (439), Virginia (.417, 424) is second in both of the categories.
“It is kind of scary just looking at both teams and seeing how close the numbers are,” Fox said. “On paper, it looks dead-even.”
So what’s going to give?
Like any series between loaded rosters, pitching and defense could provide the difference.
UVa, producers of 48 runs in its last three games, isn’t blind to this.
“It’s huge to be getting the hits that we’ve been getting,” said sophomore designated hitter Derek Fisher, who is on a 10-game hit streak. “But you really can’t rely on that every night. Playing teams like North Carolina, with the pitching we have and the pitching they have, you can’t rely on getting 20 hits a night.
“So pitching and defense is obviously what it comes down to because ballgames like that can come down to the last pitch of the ninth inning.”
If that is the case, the Cavaliers will need a quick improvement on the mound.
The other side to Virginia’s offense-heavy sweep of Duke last weekend was a Wahoo starting staff that got rocked for 14 runs in 15 innings.
Throw in the 18 runs in 13 1/3 innings that the Brandon Waddell-Scott Silverstein-Nick Howard rotation got hit for in Blacksburg in late April and the Cavalier arms aren’t exactly humming coming into Chapel Hill to face a lineup that includes the likely ACC Player of the Year in Colin Moran (.379, 13 home runs, 78 RBI) and two talented rookies in Bolt (.391, six home runs, 41 RBI) and Lassiter (.331, one home run, 23 RBI).
“I don’t think that our starting pitching has been real consistent the last couple of ACC weekends,” said UVa coach Brian O’Connor, “but there’s been periods this year when that’s been the case also and, all of a sudden, they’ve come out of it and have had a great weekend.
“The Florida State weekend is a great example. Leading up to that, I think we were getting two out of three starts on a weekend that were inconsistent and [then] we’d get one really good start. They put it all together for that weekend.
“Anything could happen.”
Waddell, Silverstein and Howard dazzled against the then-No. 5 Seminoles on April 20-21, yielding just two runs over 19 2/3 innings.
But don’t expect to see the same faces on the mound at Boshamer. Waddell (4-1, 3.88 ERA) will go tonight and Silverstein (8-1, 3.21) will get the 7 p.m., Friday, start, but O’Connor might go another direction Saturday.
“I have not decided whether Nick Howard will pitch down there or not,” O’Connor said Tuesday. “I’m going to leave it open in game three. If I was a gambling man, I’d tell you he’s probably not going to pitch and we’re going to look at another option. And that’s not because he’s pitching poorly. It’s more that I think the guy needs to settle in and be our shortstop.”
Freshman righty Josh Sborz (3-0, 1.88) could be the Saturday option.
Howard has switched from third base to short since Branden Cogswell fractured his finger before the Duke series. Cogswell’s leadoff spot is now Papi’s.
Papi, a sophomore left fielder, has simply upped his batting average to an ACC-best .411 in his new role.
O’Connor’s not the only coach who has to worry about a lethal opposing lineup.
“I don’t think they have any weaknesses,” said Fox, whose team had two ACC games games cancelled due to inclement weather. “They’ve got speed, they’ve got power, they’ve got left-handed hitters, they have right-handed hitters. ... They’re just the whole package.”
But the Heels aren’t slouches, either. On the brink of the ACC Tournament and two weeks away from the NCAA Regionals, North Carolina and Virginia will use this series to help foreshadow the next month.
“We will see this weekend, with playing North Carolina, what you have to do to beat a really good club,” O’Connor said. “The kind of clubs you’re going to have to beat to win an ACC championship, the kind of clubs you’re going to have to beat to win a national championship.
“I think it’ll be a very, very good test for us.”
Added Fox: “You’re playing against the very best. If you want to be a championship team, you got to play championship-caliber opponents. There’s no substitute for that.
“You want to get out there against the best and see how you stack up.”