By Turner Walston
The Navy squad swept the first three games of Carolina baseball's Fall World Series by scores of 5-1, 12-7 and 9-3. The annual scrimmage series pits two teams of Tar Heels - drafted by the seniors - against each other. The winning team will run just five miles while the losers will run ten during the fall conditioning period.
With three of the Tar Heels' returning starters, Skye Bolt, Michael Russell and Parks Jordan, the Navy squad had the offense to manufacture runs. But the story of Friday's opener was the pitching of junior Benton Moss. The Morehead-Cain scholar allowed just three hits and struck out eight in 5.0 innings of work.
Moss sputtered late in his sophomore season. He was electric in earning a win at Georgia Tech in early May (8 innings, two hits), but did not earn a decision in his next six outings. Moss was hot and cold in 2013. If he was on, he was great. But if he was off, he labored to command the strike zone. If his fastball was out of the zone early, Moss would turn to a curveball. If that missed high, it was tough to get back into at-bats. The Enfield native said he'd changed his approach for 2014.
"This year, I'm taking my warmup just fundamentally different," he said last weekend. "When I'm down in the pen, I don't move to any other pitch until I feel comfortable with my fastball." Moss is getting serious about his work in the bullpen prior to starts. Whereas before he might throw 40 to 45 pitches at 90 percent, he's become more focused and intentional. He's decided that getting that fastball right at 75 percent in the bullpen will help him last longer in games. "I'm trying to cut down about 15 pitches in warmups," he said. "That's 15 pitches I can take to the game instead of just warming up with a curveball, two fastballs and slider. Now, it's all fastballs until I get comfortable, and then we'll kind of work some other stuff."
The new approach was evident on Friday. Moss recorded eight strikeouts, walking just one. He consistently hit 93 miles an hour on the fastball, a noticeable bump from his first two years. He credited the extra velocity to weight put on over the summer. Moss interned with the New York Yankees and said the Big Apple diet helped him pack on the pounds. He played at about 175 last year and got up to 185 this summer. Back in Chapel Hill, that number has dropped a bit. "I haven't had enough time to eat as much as I was eating in New York," he said. "I would get up at six, eat breakfast, go to the gym, eat after, get a snack before lunch, a snack after lunch, dinner, post-dinner, post-post-dinner," he said. "I was eating probably six or seven thousand calories a day, so I haven't been able to keep that up." Moss said he was aiming to play at 190 by the time the spring rolls around.
Moss didn't throw the baseball from the time he left Omaha in June until returning to Chapel Hill in August, but he said the time off was a good thing. "It was not long enough to get out of the feel of your mechanics, but long enough to give your arm a good break, so my arm feels good," he said. "It feels really good."
Now a junior, Moss will be counted upon to lead what figures to be a young Tar Heel team next spring. He described the Diamond Heels as "raw," but said there is plenty of potential in the locker room. "We've got a lot of the guys who are green who are kind of ready to be primed and put into an ACC situation," he said.
Though he wants his team to get the victory, Moss said on Saturday and Sunday he was able to sit back and appreciate the fact that all the players on the field were in fact Tar Heels. "I'm trying to think about it from a coach's perspective," he said. "It's exciting. There are a lot of bright spots."
FALL WORLD SERIES NOTES
• Landon Lassiter was the Tar Heels' designated hitter throughout most of 2013, but the sophomore has been more than capable at shortstop for the Blue squad during the Fall World Series. Lassiter figures to compete at third base after playing there for the Chatham Anglers in the Cape Cod League this summer. "I was playing a new position I haven't played much, but I got to play in a really good league and learning third and just figuring out the little things like foot steps and getting your feet and timing down," he said.
• The Fall World Series will continue Friday at 6 p.m. at Boshamer Stadium, with games Saturday at noon and Sunday at 2. If the Blue team wins this second series, the teams will compete in a winner-take-all matchup on Tuesday, October 15 at 3 p.m.