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March 7, 2007

Tar Heels have the right tools

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Losing weekend starters Daniel Bard and Andrew Miller would be disastrous for most teams. But for North Carolina, the departure of the dynamic duo has only made the pitching staff stronger as new roles have blossomed for several pitchers.

Before the season, the most glaring concern for the Tar Heels was the pitching staff not the offense. However, through the first 13 games of the season the pitching staff has performed at a high level while the offense has left something to be desired.

With the tables turned, North Carolina coach Mike Fox is pleased with the staff.

"I've been very pleased with the way we've pitched this year," Fox told Rivals.com. "Our pitching has us to this point and we've avoided making too many mistakes on the mound. I'm encouraged by our pitching staff."

The North Carolina staff which has a 1.66 ERA is led by senior right-hander Robert Woodard. Woodard is off to another solid start this spring and has a 0.92 ERA in 19 2/3 innings of work.

The veteran righty is joined on the weekend by a pair of surprises sophomore Luke Putkonen and freshman talent Alex White.

Putkonen was one of the more underrated pitchers on the staff last season, while White joined the Tar Heels in the fall as a high-profile player. Putkonen and White each have an ERA under 1.09 and are a huge reason for the Heels' success on the mound.

"We didn't throw Luke (Putkonen) a lot in the fall and he has responded very well," Fox said. "Alex (White) is a talented player and is a tremendous addition to our program."

White's most impressive attributes are his toughness and maturity.

"Sometimes with a young guy, he has the tendency to get a little nervous during tough situations," Fox said. "But Alex, he's far from that. He approaches the mound and knows what it takes to win at a high level."

The weekend rotation isn't the only piece of the pitching staff Fox is pleased with. The bullpen has also raised the coaching staff's eyebrows.

"If you don't have a quality bullpen at this level, you're going to be in big trouble," Fox said. "Fortunately for us, we've had some guys step up this spring."

Matt Danford and Andrew Carignan continue to have solid outings, while Rob Wooten and Matt Cox are surprises.

Even with two herniated discs in his back, Wooten continues to pitch. Cox is also a key component, as he gives the Tar Heels a quality left-handed arm out of the pen.

"Rob (Wooten) is a tough kid and has had a lot of success. When you see someone that has gone through what he has, it's great to see," Fox said. "Matt (Cox) is also important because he is vastly improved and is a left-hander."

Offense a concern for Fox, Tar Heels

With the North Carolina pitching staff in great shape the focus has turned to the offense, which is hitting .298 entering this weekend's series against Miami.

On the surface that might not seem so bad but as you dig deeper, the reasons for concern are clear.

"We've got to get it going offensively and I think we will as the season progresses," Fox said. "I think some of our older guys are pressing too much and that has put a lot of pressure on the rest of the lineup."

UNC shortstop Josh Horton leads the team with an impressive .421 batting average but the trio of Chad Flack, Benji Johnson and Seth Williams is hitting under .215.

Flack's struggles are most surprising.

While the Tar Heels hope the veterans improve, the freshman duo of Dustin Ackley and Drew Poulk have been more than serviceable.

Ackley is second on the team in hitting with a .396 batting average, with Poulk close behind at .368.

Even more impressive, Ackley leads the team in doubles with nine, while Poulk leads the team in home runs with four.

"Ackley and Poulk have been very important for us this season," Fox said. "The younger guys are just excited to play baseball, so they're not focusing too much on what they're supposed to be doing. They're just going out and playing."

Fox also admits that their emergence is no surprise.

"Both Ackley and Poulk had very impressive fall workouts, so this isn't striking us as a huge surprise," he said. "But no doubt about it, we're very impressed with what they've given us so far this season."