North Carolina slides around Tech

The pitching staff was a question mark for the Jackets in the preseason after the team lost two key starters and both closers from the 2008 squad. So far, though, the 2009 staff has been solid on all fronts, posting strong numbers to date and putting the team in position to win games.

At the forefront of the starting rotation has been sophomore right-hander Deck McGuire, who leads Tech starters with a 2.36 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP and 59 strikeouts; he remains undefeated at 5-0 through seven starts. McGuire was at his best in last weekend’s series against North Carolina, giving up just one run in six innings while striking out 11, though he did not factor into the decision as Tech fell 4-2.

“More than anything, I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been … and it helps when you know that your team’s going to score runs,” McGuire said.

The other two weekend starters, junior Zach Von Tersch and sophomore Kevin Jacob, have hit some bumps in the road. Von Tersch has struggled to replicate his solid 2008 season so far, with a 5.45 ERA in seven games as the Saturday starter. The junior righty has pitched into the sixth inning in only one start this season, as he has often fallen victim to high pitch counts. This Saturday’s game was no exception, as Von Tersch threw 89 pitches while giving up four runs—two earned—over five innings. Still, he left the game with Tech down by only a run, and the Jackets mounted a late-inning comeback to win the game and preserve his 5-1 record.

Jacob—Tech’s only starter who averages under one strikeout per inning—took over Sunday duties early in the season after opening the year as a midweek starter, and until this weekend he had been excellent, going 4-1 with a 2.97 ERA. However, against UNC he seemed rattled after a series of defensive mishaps in the second inning, and the Tar Heels rallied for an eight-run inning to force him from the game.

“Guys are going to make errors, so you need to expect that when you’re pitching, and then you’ve got to be able to make pitches after that. He wasn’t able to do that [on Sunday],” Head Coach Danny Hall said.

The midweek starters were more in flux early in the season, but Hall seems to have settled on sophomore right-hander Brandon Cumpton and freshman left-hander Jed Bradley. Cumpton has had a rough season after a strong performance on opening weekend, surrendering 12 runs in 12 innings in his past three starts while allowing opposing batters to hit .356 against him. Bradley pitched five no-hit innings in relief against Kennesaw State on March 17; with only three starts under his belt, he is still adjusting to starting duties, but he provides Tech with a left-handed arm in the rotation.

Until Wednesday’s game, the bullpen had been consistently effective, with each of Tech’s four main relievers maintaining an ERA below four. Freshman Jake Davies and sophomore Zach Brewster have been reliable southpaw options, junior right-hander Andrew Robinson has been solid after converting from midweek starter to the bullpen, and freshman Mark Pope has thrived in the closer role. In addition to those four, infielders Patrick Long and Thomas Nichols occasionally appear in relief, and Hall has also worked sophomore Taylor Wood and freshman Jacob Esch into the mix.

Tech has one of the most productive offenses in the nation, but in order to maintain its level of success this season, the team will need its pitching staff to rebound from a difficult four-day stretch in which the Jackets surrendered 13 runs to UNC on Sunday and 23 to Georgia Southern on Wednesday. The team may drop out of the national top 10 after this week, but if the rotation and bullpen can remain effective through the rest of the season, the Jackets could power their way back to the top of the national rankings.