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Baseball Preview/Prediction: North Carolina

If we win today, that's what we call a "winning streak." And it has happened before.

When North Carolina and Boston College take the diamond at Shea Field this weekend, on paper and at first glance, it will look like a weekend where the Eagles are in some more deep trouble. After all, the Tar Heels were the top seed in last year's College World Series, the best ranked team advancing to Omaha.

As the top-ranked team in Omaha, they overcame an opening game loss to NC State to advance to within one game of the CWS Finals. They beat LSU and a return match with the Wolpack before dropping the Bracket One final game to UCLA, a team that swept the CWS championship over Mississippi State. They finished with a 59-12 record, winning eight more games last season than BC Head Coach Mike Gambino has had in his entire tenure at The Heights.

In Chapel Hill last year (which was supposed to be played in Boston until a snow storm said otherwise), they outscored the Eagles 16-2 in two games with the third game completely cancelled. So forgive anyone if they're leery about the Eagles and Tar Heels taking the field against one another.

But there's something about this series that has me believing BC can pick off a game or two.

The 2014 UNC Tar Heels baseball team hasn't been the same monster it was last year. Sure, they still have three preseason All-America selections, and yes, they were a preseason top 20 team in the nation. But they've struggled through the first part of the season. Despite opening the year 12-4, the Tar Heels lost six in a row, including an ACC sweep at the hands of Duke, before beating UNC-Wilmington earlier in the week. They enter this weekend series struggling at the plate as a team, and their 5-7 ACC record places them as the fifth place team in the Coastal Division. And if BC finally was able to buoy itself this week against both UConn and UMass, the Eagles present a golden chance to actually pick off some games they ordinarily wouldn't win.

Using Pythagorean W-L, I'll remind you that BC's scored 83 runs while allowing 130. That means their season-long performance has dropped all the way to 28.9%. That extrapolates to a wins total on the season of only 15. Bottom line, that's good enough for this team, and given the way they started the year, they need to perform better. What better way than to use their solid pitching to step in and take some games from a UNC team that's struggled over the last month?

BC Offense vs. UNC Defense

I haven't done this for a long time, but let's go back to my original prediction of what it would take to win 20 games. With two wins bringing them up to nine on the season, BC now has 201 hits and 253 total bases on the season. My original prediction of numbers for 20 wins would be as a result of 477 hits and 634 total bases. Through 27 games, that means the Eagles are averaging 7.44 hits and 9.37 bases per game. This extrapolates to 401 hits and 505 total bases.

That is a major indictment of the BC offense. They were able to explode for runs against UMass, but let's face it - the Minutemen are a bad baseball team. Instead of being able to explode every now and then for runs, the Eagles need instead to capitalize on timely hitting. They need to do more of what they've been doing - get a guy on, steal a base, sacrifice, score a run.

BC bats will face very good pitching out of the Tar Heels; Trent Thornton will start on Friday sporting a 5-1 record and an ERA hovering around 2.00. Benton Moss will take a 2-1 record to Saturday, with Sunday's starter yet to be determined. Both men have a WHIP around 1.00 (walks plus hits per innings pitched), meaning they don't give up a ton of base runners.

UNC does have one of the best closers in the nation in Chris McCue, but he's out indefinitely with a shoulder injury.

That's bad news for an expected BC lineup that would struggle to hit water if they fell out of a boat.

C Nick Sciortino .200 .244 .357 5 9 0 1 10 8 1-2
1B John Hennessy .198 .218 .293 10 20 0 4 11 18 2-3
2B Blake Butera .237 .289 .383 11 23 1 6 16 14 5-5
3B Johnny Adams .239 .268 .341 7 17 0 5 9 15 0-1
SS Joe Cronin .228 .304 .324 17 21 0 9 14 23 2-4
LF Michael Strem .200 .300 .382 2 2 0 0 3 5 0-0
CF Tom Bourdon .216 .255 .252 7 22 0 13 5 10 3-3
RF Chris Shaw .240 .360 .310 5 24 1 12 9 22 1-2

None of this includes expected DH Gabriel Hernandez, whose three game hitting streak leads all Eagle hitters. But even then, he's only hitting .256, even if he has a .322 on base percentage.

BC Defense vs. UNC Offense

North Carolina is a team that, on paper, should be able to mash the ball. Korey Dunbar leads the team in RBIs after missing the first few games with an injury. Since returning to the starting lineup at the end of February, he's been a beast with 18 knocked in. Couple that with four guys hitting over .300, including Tom Zengel's .340 batting average and .638 slugging percentage, and once again, BC pitching is going to have its work cut out, especially since they've had to be near-flawless in order for the team to win.

BC will send its usual suspects to the hill; John Gorman will start on Friday with Andrew Chin getting the call on Saturday. I've loved that set up because it plays the percentages and ensures Chin is in a winnable matchup in the middle of the weekend. Chin's ERA is below 2.00, sixth best in the ACC. Gorman's 2-4, but he's improved this year with just 33 hits allowed in his nearly 37 innings of work. He also holds one of the best strikeout to walk ratios on the team, with 29 K's to just nine walks.

Overall, BC's starting pitching this weekend have all been stellar. Chin is holding hitters to a .171 average, including games against FSU and Virginia, while Gorman is next at .250. Jeff Burke gets the call in the third game, and while he's struggled at times with command, hitters are only hitting .267 against him.

From a bullpen standpoint, Luke Fernandes needs to be utilized as much as possible while riding his hot streak, Bobby Skogsbergh's had flashes. We still, however, have no idea who can close games for the Eagles. John Nicklas and Jesse Adams both flunked their tests in that regard, and half the Eagle staff is still dealing with an ERA problem. Side note - Eric Stevens is 0-3 in 10 appearances and one start. I don't think his dreams are even winning ballgames at this point. I feel terrible when that happens.

Anyways, this is the expected lineup the Eagles will probably face:

Pos. Name BA OBP SLG%
C Korey Dunbar .276 .389 .421
1B Joe Dudek .232 .346 .406
2B Wood Myers .313 .372 .374
3B Colby Barnette .333 .400 .333
SS Michael Russell .282 .400 .447
LF Parks Jordan .245 .305 .255
CF Skye Bolt .223 .348 .287
RF Tyler Ramirez .270 .367 .365

DH duties will probably go to Zengel. One thing to note is that out of those players, nobody has an OBP under .300, and only one guy has a slugging percentage under .275. Like I said, BC pitchers will have their work cut out for them.

Prediction Time

Do I think BC will win this series? Absolutely not. The Eagles are 1-16 against the Tar Heels lifetime, and UNC is a team that's missed the tournament only once since Mike Fox took over the team in 1999. They've made the College World Series every year except for two since 2006, and they're a perennial ACC powerhouse. They're a team that you see on the schedule and cringe because you worry about what they might do to BC.

But that said, I think UNC is down this year, as down as they're going to get. I know they won this week against UNC-W, but they've struggled over the last few weeks, and it's resulted in lineup changes. That type of transition gets buoyed by the fact that McCue is out. So if BC can survive through the starting pitchers and manufacture a run here or there, they can lean back on their pitching. Honestly, their best chance for a win happens early in the weekend, and they will not win if they have to go deep into the pen for any reason this weekend. Even though the wins this week were at the expense of lesser ballclubs, a win this weekend will put the team back on track as much as it can after struggling through the last month and a half.