Closers come up big in North Carolina's title quest

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Last season, North Carolina's baseball team reached the championship series of the College World Series on the strength of its starting pitching.

Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard were two of the best college pitchers in 2006. Miller was named the sport's national player of the year and won the Roger Clemens Award as the country's top pitcher. The left-hander was the sixth pick in the amateur draft last year and already is pitching in the majors for the Detroit Tigers. Bard, a hard-throwing right-hander, went to the Red Sox with the 28th pick and was reportedly paid a signing bonus of more than $1.5 million.

But as North Carolina returns to the College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., the Tar Heels are relying less on their starters and more on their bullpen as they seek to avenge last year's loss to Oregon State in the national championship game.

North Carolina, the No. 3 national seed, begins the double-elimination tournament against Mississippi State on Friday night (ESPN2, 7 ET).

While the Tar Heels will need strong efforts from their top three starting pitchers -- senior Robert Woodard (10-2, 3.01 ERA), freshman Alex White (6-5, 4.22) and sophomore Luke Putkonen (7-1, 4.74) -- their bullpen figures to have an even greater impact in Omaha.

The Tar Heels were pretty much unbeatable after taking late-game leads this season. They have a 43-2 record when leading after the sixth inning, 45-1 after the seventh and 50-1 after the eighth.

All-American closer Andrew Carignan and junior Rob Wooten have been especially good during the NCAA Tournament. In last weekend's Chapel Hill Super Regional, the pair combined to pitch 10 1/3 scoreless innings, as the Tar Heels won two of three games against South Carolina.

Wooten, a right-hander from Fremont, N.C., pitched in all three games (two in the same day); Carignan pitched six innings in North Carolina's two victories.

"Those guys are awesome," left fielder Reid Fronk said. "We definitely have a lot of confidence when they come into the ballgame."

Carignan has been the team's workhorse during the last two seasons. He pitched a career-high four innings in North Carolina's 9-4 win over the Gamecocks on Sunday, the deciding game in the super regional.

"Andrew Carignan has been the guy for us the last three years, certainly the last two," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. "He's our horse and we were going to ride him as long as we could."

Andrew Carignan has been the guy for us the last three years, certainly the last two. He's our horse and we were going to ride him as long as we could.

Mike Fox

Carignan threw 69 pitches, allowing only one hit with three walks and three strikeouts. He has converted 15 of 16 save opportunities and opponents are hitting only .178 against him this season.

Despite the high pitch count Sunday, Fox said he didn't consider taking Carignan out of the game.

"If I had gone out there to take him out, I would have sent somebody else to do it," Fox said. "He's bigger and meaner than me."

Carignan, a junior from Norwich, Conn., saved two of North Carolina's four victories in the 2006 College World Series. He has 30 saves over the last two seasons, including many in the Tar Heels' biggest games. Carignan was a fifth-round selection, No. 180 overall, by the Oakland Athletics in last week's amateur draft.

"I always want the ball when it's on the line," Carignan said. "I pitch off adrenaline and you can't have more adrenaline than right then."

The Tar Heels' bullpen is so deep that sophomore Adam Warren, who won 10 of 11 starts this season, didn't even take the mound during the super regional.

Sophomore Tim Federowicz, the team's starting catcher, also is an effective reliever, with a 2.25 ERA in his last seven appearances. He has 14 strikeouts in his last 9 2/3 innings. Senior Matt Danford has appeared in 112 games during his four-year career, working middle to long relief. Danford won two games during the NCAA Tournament last season.

Collectively, North Carolina's relievers are a big reason the Tar Heels might be considered the favorites in Omaha.

"They have all the ingredients in place," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "Danford has done it for them all year. Wooten has 41 appearances this season, which is incredible. To hand the ball over to Carignan, you have a good chance to win."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.