Ahead of Saturday's College World Series opening games, including UNC's matchup vs. Oregon State at 3 p.m, three of our veteran baseball writers, Will Bryant, Turner Walston and Sam Doughton, hopped into the Argyle Report Slack channel and broke down this year's final eight -- from UNC's performance thus far, to comparisons to past Tar Heel Omaha teams, to some draft talk and players to watch out for on all sides of the tournament. The following has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
Sam Doughton: What a run so far, huh? After a 7-7 start to the season, the 2018 UNC baseball team has made it back to the College World Series for the first time since 2013 with a 5-0 run through regional and super regional competition.
The three of us have spent time the past couple of weekends at Boshamer Stadium watching the Diamond Heels work. Will, I’ll start with you. What have you thought of UNC’s performance this postseason?
Will Bryant: It's been very representative of their season. Nine guys battling together with a common goal in mind. They haven't blown people out for the most part, but working together to grind out the tough wins.
Kyle Datres said the other day that this team doesn't have a superstar, and that's what makes them great. He's exactly right. This UNC team worked No. 14 overall pick Logan Gilbert to his shortest start of the season last weekend. No easy outs in the lineup, and pitching depth has really proved to separate UNC from their opponents thus far.
Turner Walston: I hadn’t watched Carolina all season until the ACC Tournament. I saw the loss to Pitt. But, I knew this team was better than one game in a crazy conference tournament format.
And they’ve proved it since then. They blew out Georgia Tech, and they rolled through some tough competition in the early NCAA Tournament rounds. Houston is no slouch. Stetson may be better than a team or two in Omaha. Carolina has been incredibly resilient. I just looked it up - they’ve trailed twice in five NCAA Tournament games. And never after the third inning.
What’s impressed me the most offensively has been that, even when they’ve given up runs, they’ve been quick to get them back in spades. Houston led 3-1 in the third inning, and Carolina scored five in the bottom half. Stetson scored a run to start Game One of the Supers, and Carolina had four on the board before the Hatters scored again. They’ve faced some good teams, and the Tar Heels have been unfazed by a bit of adversity.
SD: I hadn’t caught much of them until that Pitt game either Turner, but you’re right, that game was an aberration in regards to this team’s overall talent. They’ve certainly impressed me these past two weekends. Cooper Criswell and Luca Dalatri have been sharp in their own ways as starters, and both appear to be peaking at a right time. And like you said Will, the whole team has been solid up and down the lineup.
One thing I think hasn’t been talked about a whole lot with this team is their defense, which has been incredibly solid at the Bosh. Cody Roberts and Brandon Riley have been major assets in the outfield, and the infield has been sharp almost every game. They’re not giving away runs easy, which is always good to see this time of year, particularly given the caliber of teams they faced in Houston and Stetson.
Let’s turn our attention now out west, where UNC touched down on Wednesday to begin their prep for the College World Series. Will, you’re our baseball insider here at Argyle. What’s the baseball world saying about UNC’s draw in Omaha, and about the talent of the overall field of teams?
WB: The talent of the teams is pretty stacked this season. Save for tournament losses by a few powerhouses, this is loaded field. Florida is probably the best team in it, with Baseball America's Player of the Year in Brady Singer, and their 2-guy, Jackson Kowar, is a major arm as well. They've got a closer that can lock the door in Michael Byrne as well, along with an elite bat at 3B in Jonathan India. Florida is not a team you want to face in an elimination game.
UNC got dealt a tough hand as well, facing up against Omaha enemy Oregon State. They're likely the second best team here, and they boast a ton of talent - including the College Baseball Foundation National Pitcher of the Year in left-hander Luke Heimlich. All signs point to him going for them Saturday, so UNC will have its work cut out for them. The Beavers have a slew of great hitters, with Nick Madrigal and Trevor Larnach leading the way. The UNC-OSU game could be one of the best of the tournament, and the team that comes out of it undefeated will be in a great spot moving forward.
TW: That’s the important piece, though - coming out of that first game. The last two times Carolina has been to Omaha, they’ve dropped Game One - to Vanderbilt and NC State, respectively. The College World Series is another regional and then another super regional, essentially, so it’s really hard to make up ground if you drop the first game.
SD: Florida and Oregon State are both incredibly imposing, but looking at each side of the bracket, I think if UNC gets past the Beavers Game 1, they’re set up better to advance to the final series than on the other side of the bracket. Both Washington and Mississippi State were not national seeds, compared to the other side of the bracket entirely with Nationally seeded teams in Florida, Texas, Texas Tech and Arkansas. Mississippi State is great and Washington is hot, don’t get me wrong, but I do prefer UNC’s side of the bracket compared to the other.
Turner, you’ve had the opportunity to cover some past teams out of Chapel Hill that have made it Omaha. How do the 2018 Diamond Heels stack up to the teams you’ve covered out there?
TW: It’s tough to say exactly, because I was much closer to those other teams. This time around I’m not on the beat or on the radio, as it were, but I will say that this team appears to have a lot of the same classic qualities. Really, really good starting pitching; Luca Dalatri reminds me of a right-handed Kent Emanuel, and Cooper Criswell is a Ju-Co transfer who has pitched in big games. Some star quality, as we’ve seen in Michael Busch and Ike Freeman of late, and some really outstanding senior leadership.
Kyle Datres and Zack Gahagan don’t just appear to be the emotional clubhouse leaders, but they’re also showing out on the field, and I like that a lot.
In a way, this team reminds me a bit of the 2017 men’s basketball Tar Heels. Maybe not quite as individually talented as their predecessors, but a team that learned from disappointment and swore to better themselves.
I also kind of like that none of this group has been to Omaha. They don’t know what they’ve missed, literally. They’re going to go up and have fun on Friday night at the opening ceremonies, but then they’re going to get down to business in the first game of the event. I’ll never forget Chaz Frank staring down (Vanderbilt's) Sonny Gray in game one in 2011. Gray was and is a great, great pitcher. But Chaz led off with a triple. Boom.
I think Brandon Riley could have a Chaz-type impact. And Will, we haven’t even mentioned Ashton McGee, who could get hot anytime.
WB: Ashton was fantastic this past weekend, coming up big with men on base multiple times. I think the right-left balance of the UNC bats is huge, because it doesn't allow for any lefty specialist to come in and throw multiple batters straight. Cody Roberts is also carrying a Thor Hammer lately, he's not going to miss a mistake pitch right now.
TW: I can’t believe I forgot Roberts, who has so much experience behind the plate and at the plate. He reminds me of a Jacob Stallings. Steady.
WB: And Josh Hiatt. The fireman to come in and lock it up. He's going to have to be ready, throughout the whole tournament. Fox trusts him so much in big spots, and they'll be no shortage of those in Omaha.
TW: That is one area of concern for me. Hiatt has been outstanding - but Carolina teams in tournament games have had a tendency to get scored on late. Somehow I knew they’d give up at least a run in the ninth last weekend. They can’t do that in Omaha. Have to shut the door before some team gets momentum late and kicks it open.
WB: I completely agree. I thought Brooks Wilson of Stetson hit himself a walkoff on Saturday. I haven't felt a chill come over a stadium like that in years
TW: Will, in recent seasons I’ve watched, late in the year, the bullpen rotation has been whittled down to the point that it seems there are only a couple of arms that the coaches trust. Under Robert Woodard, however, more guys seem to be getting opportunities for big spots. Am I right about that?
WB: It seems to be the case. I enjoyed seeing freshman Caden O'Brien coming in for big spots this past weekend. Seeing Fox give the ball to four or five guys in a game shows great depth, and makes the film time that much longer, and harder to really focus on one arm for opponents.
SD: That’s an interesting observation Turner, because I was planning on bringing that back up later on as an X-Factor for this team. They always seem to go to the same three or four arms every game, which can quickly backfire if they get into that loser’s bracket and don’t have battle tested arms ready to go.
Hiatt in particular is used in a lot of high leverage situations, and I’m worried about him staying fresh as the tournament goes further into the week. He gave up some big runs in the regional final against Houston after being used for the third time in three days that weekend. But, as Will said, there does seem to be more depth than in years past, with Hiatt, O’Brien, Rodney Hutchinson Jr., Brett Daniels, and Austin Bergner all getting shots to shine thus far in the post season
I want to circle back to something you said earlier Turner, because I think it’s important to the identity of this team. They don’t have the stars, necessarily, of the past teams Coach Fox has brought to Omaha, and you can see that in the All-America lists from various outlets, where I’ve yet to see any Tar Heels mentioned, and in the draft list, where despite a record breaking 10 selections from UNC, none came before Round 6, and all but one came after Round 10.
Will, two questions: why, despite there being so many Tar Heels selected, were they taken later in the draft? And what sort of pro potential do these major league teams see in these players?
WB: These UNC players are very solid players for MLB teams to look at, but they don't have the upside to warrant a high pick/ high money selection. Rodney is a great example. He's an excellent investment for the Yankees in the sixth round. He's a proven arm on the college level as a reliever, but doesn't have real rotation stuff you'd draft higher.
Criswell is interesting, and he may be a steal. His first season out of Ju-Co may be fluky to some, but he's a bulldog and pounds the zone. He's got some upside.
Hiatt tunnels his pitches very well, making his slider and fastball look nearly identical on their way to the plate. He has a winning mentality and will do whatever it takes to make it.
Bergner was a Top-200 guy out of high school. He's got some potential, and may be able to rise a good bit in the draft if he stays at UNC another season to work out some kinks.
Daniels is a proven strike thrower. Teams love that, so he'll get chances.
Jason Morgan has a pro level body, he's just gotta get healthy and try to really figure out his pitches and release point. Definite project pick.
The position players may be cursed draft wise with no real position. It's a gift in college to be able to work around the diamond, but in the pros, it's all about holding down a spot and the bat.
Datres has performed well this season, but has some doubters. He's a hard worker and could prove some people wrong.
Gahagan has been a jack of all trades during his time at UNC, playing brilliant defense all over the field - especially this past weekend at 2B. He's got to figure out his bat on a consistent basis.
Brandon Riley is a bit undersized, but has shown good defensive IQ and a decent bat. He can run pretty well, and will likely be able to work up an organization, over time.
Cody Roberts has a flat out cannon for a right arm. His catching ability, coupled with his improving bat make him interesting. He's got two shots in the pros, once behind the plate, and another on the mound.
SD: A good overview of the Tar Heels, Will. Are there any players on other teams UNC fans should keep an eye on this weekend as future pros?
WB: For OSU, Madrigal went No. 4 overall and Trevor Larnach went No. 20 and SS Cadyn Grenier went No. 37. Having both middle infielders drafted that high speaks volumes to the Beavers talent and upside as a team.
The Florida players mentioned earlier - Singer, Kowar, India, Byrne - are all guys to watch. A ton of talent on the Florida team. Watching India take one at bat, you can tell he's a different animal.
I may be forgetting some guys, but one to single out is (Texas second baseman) Koby Clemens. Roger's son is red hot right now, and has 23 HR on the season. He's one you won't wanna miss.
SD: Good stuff Will. Let’s begin to wrap things up by turning our attention back towards UNC’s chances in Omaha. Turner, I’ll start with you. Who do you think is the position player and pitcher most crucial to a potential UNC run for their first national title?
TW: Michael Busch, time and time again, has come through with big ABs for the Tar Heels. So I’ll say him. Pitching-wise, Carolina has to get a good start out of Dalatri on Saturday. But the bullpen will be just as key. To follow up on earlier, I really hope UNC doesn’t have to turn to a starter in relief just to save their season. There are enough quality arms - Hutchison, O’Brien, (Joey) Lancelotti - before the Heels get to Hiatt. But yes, a shutdown start from Luca will go a long way.
WB: Yeah, Busch is definitely the big bat for UNC. His RBI total is incredible.
For me, I'll say Ike Freeman. Logan Warmoth's void at SS looked pretty much unfillable, but Ike has done a fantastic job. His defense, his bat, his presence on the field. Hats off to Freeman for a special season so far.
On the mound, I'll go Cooper Criswell. He got the opening game nod vs. Stetson, and did a pretty good job. He's really blossomed into a dependable starter, and his ability to attack the zone with multiple pitches makes him a weapon for UNC. I'm not sure if he starts Saturday, or relieves or what, but he's going to have to play a huge part if North Carolina wants to bring a title back to Chapel Hill
TW: And should the Tar Heels have to go the long route, Brett Daniels and Austin Bergner are going to be key. You’d love to have a healthy Jason Morgan, but alas...
WB: 100 percent agree. It would also make a world of difference to have a completely healthy Hansen Butler out there. He was great a couple seasons ago
SD: Totally agree on Busch and Freeman. Those two have been incredible for the Tar Heels all year long.
But hitting wise, I’m going to have to go with Ashton McGee. He has been awfully quiet by his standards these past two weekends, while many of his peers have been red hot. The Law of Averages suggests some of those bats may cool down, and McGee needs to be ready to step up his game if UNC wants to go deep into this tournament. I expect he will.
As for pitching, those two starters are crucial, but I think Josh Hiatt’s performance will be the biggest key. If he is effective in those trouble spots out of the pen, and isn’t leaned on too heavily or for too many innings each game, he’ll factor into almost every result the Tar Heels have Omaha. Think former Tar Heel great Andrew Miller with the Cleveland Indians in the 2016 playoffs. Hiatt can have that kind of impact when he’s on.
TW: The great Tar Heel teams have had great closers. Andrew Carignan. Mike Morin. Trent Thornton, before he was a starter. Hiatt can join some elite company.
WB: For a potential X-Factor, I'll really quickly mention defense. If it weren't for Zack Gahagan, Stetson would've scored a couple more runs. He was brilliant at 2B. Brandon Riley literally saved a game in CF. Whoever is catching to throw out would be base stealers. Excellent defense is a necessity in Omaha, and UNC has showed they're capable.
SD: Ok, down the business. Prediction time. How do you see the CWS playing out for UNC? Do the Heels take home the title? Bow out after two games? Or somewhere in between?
TW: I can’t call it. Baseball is so unpredictable, and Omaha is even crazier, and that dumb stadium was built with the wind off the river coming in from left-center to keep balls in the park. It’s so silly, but you can’t predict what happens in the CWS based on the regular season.
I hate it, by the way. Small ball is boring, and the great Omaha fans deserve to see some home runs.
WB: It's a good thing UNC holds the best bunter in the tournament in Cody Roberts.
Florida has an embarrassing amount of talent, and Oregon State is right there with them. I hate that UNC has to face a lefty Game 1 when two of the impact bats we mentioned are lefties as well. For the good Argylites, I'll roll with UNC making it to the final series. All bets are off in a two out of three with the season on the line and fatigue setting in.
SD: Good point Turner. Crazy things happen in baseball, particularly in Omaha, particularly at T.D. Ameritrade. If I had to make a prediction, my gut tells me the Heels make the Final Four but can’t quite make the Final series. I think OSU, from being there last year, has the experience and the star power on that side of the bracket to edge out the Heels. But, Coach Fox is a small ball master, so anything can happen.