For the first time since 2005, Tennessee’s baseball team is in the NCAA Tournament. The 14-year drought is finally over.
The Vols enter the Field of 64 as a two-seed in the Chapel Hill Regional with host North Carolina (42-17). Tennessee (38-19) will play three-seed Liberty (42-19) at 7 p.m. ET on Friday night, while the Tar Heels will play the four-seed UNC-Wilmington (32-29) at 2 p.m.
Should Tennessee win the Chapel Hill Regional, the Vols would take on the winner of the Atlanta Regional in the Super Regional. The Atlanta Regional consists of host Georgia Tech, two-seed Auburn, three-seed Coastal Carolina and four-seed Florida A&M.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at Tennessee’s potential opponents this weekend.
The Flames are more than capable of winning this regional.
From top-to-bottom, Liberty has the best group of starting pitchers. They also boast a solid lineup, a good defense, a strong bullpen, and most importantly, its beaten quality teams this season.
At 42-19 on the season, the Atlantic Sun champs beat South Carolina 6-5 in 11 innings, No. 20 Wake Forest 9-3, Virginia Tech 4-3, Virginia 14-5 and 6-1, Duke 9-3, and most impressively, No. 8 North Carolina 2-0.
In their first season as members of the Atlantic Sun, the Flames won the league title with a 4-3 victory over Stetson on Sunday. Liberty went 5-1 in the tournament and had to win four straight games to earn a spot in the title game after losing to Jacksonville last Thursday, 9-6.
Catcher Jonathan Embry led Liberty to the league title after he led the Flames all season long. In the tournament, the ASUN Player of the Year was named the tournament MVP after hitting .474 with two doubles and a home run.
On the season, Embry leads Liberty with a .311 batting average to go along with 10 home runs, 42 RBI, eight stolen bases, and 16 doubles.
As a team, the Flames hit .271 on the season. Eight of their nine starters hit . 262 or better. On the year, they’ve hit 96 doubles and 34 home runs and have stolen 58 bases.
Liberty has the best and most consistent pitching rotation from top-to-bottom in the Regional. Three of their four top pitchers have an ERA under 4.00.
Andrew McInvale leads the quartet with a record of 10-2 and a 3.25 ERA. In 97.0 innings, he’s recorded 97 strikeouts and allowed just 38 walks. Opponents are hitting only .233 off the right-hander.
Noah Skirrow and Joseph Adametz are the next two quality starters in the group. Skirrow, a right-hander, is 5-6 on the season with a 3.76 ERA. In 76.2 innings pitched across 15 starts, Skirrow has recorded a team-high 98 strikeouts. Adametz, a lefty, is 7-2 on the season with a 3.79 ERA. Fellow left-hander Mason Meyer rounds out the quartet of starters with a 5-4 record and 4.52 ERA.
As a group, they’ve been the most consistent. Their ability to throw strikes paired with their swing-and-miss stuff could present problems for Tennessee and North Carolina this weekend.
Out of the bullpen, All-American Evan Brabrand is the man called upon to close the door in the ninth inning. The righty has a 1.56 ERA on the season and has recorded 13 saves in 24 appearances. RHP Garrett Price (7-3, 3.29 ERA), RHP Landon Riley (2-0, 2.51 ERA), and RHP Logan Barker (2-0, 2.51 ERA) will also receive work out of the pen.
As a staff, Liberty has an ERA of 3.45. The Flames have given up 461 hits, 207 earned runs, 217 walks, 40 home runs, and have picked up 540 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .233 against the Flames this season.
Scouting North Carolina
The Tar Heels are coming off their seventh ACC Tournament title following a 10-2 win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Title game.
As a result of the win, North Carolina locked up the No. 14 national seed and are hosting an NCAA Regional for the 11th time, including the 10th time since 2006. In home regional games, UNC is 26-7 all-time.
Head coach Mike Fox is in his 21st season at his alma mater, compiling a record of 932-397-1.
This year, Fox’s team began the season on fire. North Carolina started conference play with a 12-1 record. The Tar Heels’ fire was quickly put out, though, as they were swept by Clemson and lost series at Georgia Tech, at Pittsburgh, and at home against NC State.
North Carolina lost starting pitcher Luca Dalatri along the way due to a hip injury, but the Tar Heels were able to turn things around heading into the ACC Tournament.
UNC is 8-10 on the road this season, and it didn’t appear that the Tar Heels would be in line to host. But this past weekend’s title run in Durham showed that the Heels could be peaking just in time.
Junior first baseman Michael Busch and freshman designated hitter Aaron Sabato lead a Tar Heels lineup that hits .272 as a team and ranks 26th nationally in scoring. None of the three other teams in this field rank better than 90th.
Busch was named the ACC Tournament MVP after he hit three home runs this past weekend. After hitting .294 on the season with a team-high 15 home runs and 55 RBI, the junior is likely to be a first-round pick in next week’s MLB draft. He has great power from the left side of the plate and possesses great plate vision.
Sabato, the ACC Freshman of the Year, is the other half of the dynamic duo in the two and three-hole of the North Carolina lineup. The freshman hit .338, smacked 14 home runs, and drove in a team-high 56 runs.
After Busch and Sabato, freshman shortstop Danny Serretti (.301/3/43), junior third baseman Ike Freeman (.290/6/45), junior second baseman Ashton McGee (.268/5/35), junior catcher Brandon Marotano (.259/7/39), and senior left fielder Jackson Hesterlee (.289/6/25) help form a dynamic lineup.
On the mound for Carolina, the ace is right-hander Tyler Baum. In 81.1 innings, Baum is 7-3 with a 3.76 ERA, has walked just 24 batters, and has 88 strikeouts.
Behind Baum, the rotation is shaky as right-hander Austin Bergner has a 5.48 ERA, left-hander Will Sandy has a 6.22 ERA, and right-hander Andrew Grogran has a 4.67 ERA.
The bullpen is much better than the starting rotation and is likely the best bullpen in the Regional. Right-handers Austin Love or Joey Lancellotti will likely be the first two out of the bullpen.
Love has a 3.36 ERA on the season in 56.1 innings of work. His changeup is his best pitch at 85-87 MPH and has led to 54 strikeouts along with a fastball that can touch 95 MPH. Pair that with a quality slider and it’s a tough at-bat for any hitter.
So is Lancellotti, who has a power fastball that can touch 97 MPH and has a 2.17 ERA. Along with his swing-and-miss slider, opponents are hitting just .232 off of him as he has tallied 53 strikeouts on the season.
RHP Hansen Butler (4-0, 2.00 ERA), RHP Connor Ollio (3-1, 4.08 ERA), LHP Caden O’Brien (1-1, 4.91 ERA), and RHP Josh Dotson (3-0, 4.88 ERA) are other solid options out of the bullpen.
As a staff, North Carolina’s pitchers have compiled an ERA of 4.25 on the season. The Tar Heels have allowed 512 hits, 251 earned runs, 228 walks, and struck out 519. Opposing lineups are hitting .250 against them.
Scouting UNC Wilmington
It wouldn’t be surprising to see North Carolina, Tennessee, or Liberty win the Chapel Hill Regional. It would be surprising to see UNC Wilmington win it, though.
But the Seahawks are playing for something the Tar Heels, Vols, and Flames aren’t: Their head coach.
After 28 years, UNC Wilmington head coach Mark Scalf is retiring at the end of the season. Following a thrilling extra-inning win over in-state rival Elon to win the Colonial Athletic Tournament, Scalf’s players will be looking to send him out on an even higher note.
UNC Wilmington entered the Colonial Athletic Tournament without any marquee wins and a lackluster conference record. They needed to win the tournament to earn the CAA automatic berth. With the win over Elon, they did just that.
UNCW will be appearing in their second consecutive regional this weekend. The Seahawks are led by Colonial Athletic Player of the Year Greg Jones.
The shortstop is one of the most electrifying players in all of college baseball. He’s a great athlete with top-notch speed and quick hands. Jones stole 40 bases this year, which was the sixth-most in the country. As a switch-hitter at the plate, the sophomore hit .343 to go along with five home runs and 33 runs batted in.
Third baseman Cole Weiss, designated hitter Doug Angeli, and right fielder Kep Brown are the other hitters to watch in the Seahawks’ lineup.
Brown led the team with eight home runs while Weiss hit .316 on the season. Angeli hit .290 on the year.
On the mound, Luke Gesell leads the way for UNCW. The junior right-hander started 16 games and compiled a record of 5-5 to go along with an ERA of 3.17. In 91.0 innings, Gesell struck out 71 and limited opponents to a batting average of .220.
RHP Landon Roupp (6-2, 3.50 ERA) and LHP Zarion Sharpe (3-3, 4.08 ERA) are the other two quality starters for the Seahawks.
LHP Blake Morgan (4-2, 2.72) is the best arm out of the bullpen for the Seahawks. Opponents are hitting just .159 off Morgan this season. The senior has struck out 43 and allowed just 18 walks.