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May 21, 2012

UNC's Stallings For Most Invaluable Player

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Now that the All-ACC team has been announced and the hardware has been delivered to the recipients, one more award should be presented. That award is for Most Invaluable Player, the player most indispensable to his team. This year's winner is North Carolina catcher Jacob Stallings.

This is not to suggest that the Tar Heels couldn't survive without Stallings, only that given the choice they'd rather not try. They'll find out what life is like without him a year from now. In the meantime, they should count their blessings. Any team that relies on its pitching as much as the Tar Heels do has to have a top defensive catcher, and it's hard to imagine a better catcher than Stallings.

Whether it's hitting, handling pitchers, blocking balls in the dirt, cutting down the running game, or just plain old everyday leadership, Stallings has been the consummate catcher for head coach Mike Fox's team, on the field, and in the locker room.

"Jacob has made himself into a good player," Fox said. "He's a great character kid, the kind that you would want your daughter to meet, without question. He's done everything for us. He's a big leader on our team. Guys look up to him. Countless times guys have gone to him for advice or he's gone to some other player and given them advice. He's become a really good player."

Offensively, Stallings has been a rock of consistency for UNC. He finished the regular season batting .297 with 21 doubles, four home runs and 36 RBIs. He finished third on the squad in batting, led the Tar Heels in doubles and RBIs, and tied for second in home runs and runs scored with 41. He finished third in the ACC in doubles. He batted fourth in the lineup for a team that won 42 regular-season games.

Stallings is a dangerous hitter, and has been since 2010. That much we can settle here and now. Catcher is a defense-first position, however, and Stallings' real value to North Carolina is behind the plate, wearing that mask and chest protector.

North Carolina's pitching staff ranks among the very best in the nation. The Heels finished the regular season with an ACC-best 2.61 ERA, good for fifth nationally. The staff is deep and talented. Nine UNC pitchers logged at least 24 innings and seven had ERAs of less than 3.00. The UNC starters were 23-8 with a 2.47 ERA. The relievers were 19-5 with 17 saves and a 2.80 ERA.

How much of that success can be attributed to Stallings? Some of his contributions are easily quantified. For one, he shuts down the opposing team's running game. Shuts it down cold. A year ago he set a school record by throwing out 32 basestealers. Opposing runners had an abysmal .579 success rate with him behind the dish. This year, opponents decided not to bother with it and attempted just 26 steals against UNC all season, the fewest against any team in the nation.

"Jacob Stallings is probably the best catch-and-throw catcher in the country," NC State coach Elliott Avent said after the Wolfpack played in Chapel Hill the weekend of March 24-26. "Their pitchers do a great job of holding runners, but Stallings gets rid of the ball faster than anyone you'll see, and every throw is knee high, right above the base."

In addition, Stallings blocks balls in the dirt like a hockey goalie guarding the net in overtime. North Carolina ended the regular season with just 20 wild pitches, a ridiculously low figure that ranked among the national leaders. Wild pitches are officially charged to the pitcher, but pitching staffs with a lot of wild pitches usually have issues behind the plate as well. Conversely, staffs that throw 20 wild pitches in 55 games are usually blessed with a Johnny Bench Award candidate at catcher.

To further illustrate how good Stallings is at keeping the ball in front of him, he had three passed balls all season. Three. In 55 games. There are 10 ACC catchers who had two passed balls in a single game. Five of them did it more than once. One did it three different times. Stallings, meanwhile, goes weeks at a time without having to chase a ball to the backstop.

"I think we're in the top three in the country in least number of wild pitches, and we're first in the country in least number of attempted steals," Stallings said. "I do take pride in those two things, very much so. If they're not gonna run, if they're gonna try to play it station to station against our pitching staff, they're gonna have a hard time scoring."

A catcher who blocks pitches in the dirt is a great security blanket. UNC's pitchers can, and do, throw curveballs, cutters, sliders, knuckleballs, screwballs, you name it, in any count, no matter how many runners are on base. Runner on third, no problem. Stallings will smother the ball.

"He's a great receiver," said freshman righthander Benton Moss, whose curveball may be the best on the team. "You just have all the confidence when he's back there. You can throw the ball wherever you want to. He's going to block it, he's going to frame it, he's going to do everything that needs to be done back there. He's top-notch. There's a lot of little things that go unsaid about Stallings. He's a champion back there."

Other parts of Stallings' game don't show up on the stat sheet, but watch him over several games and it becomes readily apparent that he is the anchor for that pitching staff. You can't quantify that with statistics, but the people who matter - North Carolina's pitchers and coaches - they know.

"We've had some good catchers here, fortunately, because you need a good catcher when you have a good pitching staff," Fox said. "They make all the difference, and I think Jacob's biggest contribution to our team is how he handles our pitchers. That's the one thing that people wouldn't notice. They notice how he can throw and how he can block, but our pitchers will all tell you that they love throwing to him."

Stallings came to Carolina in the fall of 2008 from Brentwood Academy in Nashville, Tenn., where he earned all-state honors in baseball and basketball. He managed to play in 26 games as a freshman for the Tar Heels in 2009, starting 19 games, 13 of them at catcher. He batted .246 in 57 at-bats. He played and hit safely in all three of North Carolina's College World Series games.

Playing time was limited for Stallings that year in large part because when he got to Chapel Hill he was a gangly 6-foot-5 and weighed about 175 pounds. He'd turn sideways and disappear. Hence the .246 average. He knew it and knew he had to do something about it. So while he worked hard at the ballpark to get better and earn playing time, he also logged countless hours in the weight room and put on about 50 pounds of muscle, going from frail freshman to rock-solid sophomore.

"[Gaining weight and strength] was one of the two most important things that happened for me while I was here," Stallings said. "Gaining all that weight and the strength that comes along with it helps you do so many things on the baseball field, just being more consistent and able to play a whole season while staying injury-free. That's one of the two things that I attribute my success to, particularly the last two years.

"[The other] is the mental aspect of the game, really working to not treat every at-bat like it's life or death. Today [May 18 vs. Virginia Tech] I went 0-for-3 and I'm really not that worried about it because the umpire had a big zone. You've got to take it for what it's worth and really be locked into your approach and not so much the outcome."

According to Fox, much of Stallings' mental approach comes from his father, Kevin Stallings, the men's basketball coach at Vanderbilt University. While Stallings father doesn't coach baseball ("He tries to coach baseball sometimes," Stallings jokes), he's still a coach, and there is something about the offspring of coaches that sets them apart from other athletes.

Coaches' kids are around the game constantly and they're exposed to aspects of the game that the typical athlete isn't even aware of, especially the mental part of the game. That explains a lot about how Stallings got so much better and stronger after his freshman season, about why his mental approach is so impeccable, about why he has such a burning drive to excel.

"Jacob is tough," Fox said. "He's caught every game. He's tough physically, mentally. He is just a tough, tough kid, and you can give all the credit for that to his dad, every bit. That's the epitome of a coach's son. Grown up, seen it, and he's learned from watching his dad coach. All catchers have to be tough, and he's as physically tough a kid as I've coached here. You have to be tough to catch 50-something games a year and hit in the four hole all year long. He gets beat to death back there. He just keeps plugging."

Since his stringbean freshman season, Stallings has been UNC's ironman behind the plate, starting 163 games the last three years. He batted .297 in 2012 and his average the last three years is .297. Consistent. A year ago, he was behind the plate every game as North Carolina made its fifth College World Series appearance in six years. He's caught every game this season as well. His time at UNC has been marked with tremendous success, team and individual, and he fully expects that to continue over the next month-plus.

"I think that compared to the two teams I've been on that have been [to the CWS, 2009 and 2011], this team is best-equipped to do something really special when we get there, just because of our pitching depth," Stallings said. "Last year, we had P.J. [Patrick Johnson] and Kent [Emanuel] and those were the two guys that we really felt confident in starting a game. This year, we have about six guys that we feel just as confident in, guys that could be starters. I think we're much better-suited for Omaha than the two previous years that I was there."

There are those who are surprised that Stallings is back at UNC for his senior season. There are definitely coaches around the ACC who aren't especially happy about it. The Cincinnati Reds selected him in the 42nd round of the 2011 MLB Draft, but that was long after the point of no return for Stallings and the draft.

"I talked with my mom and dad the night before the draft and tried to figure out what round it would take for me to be as excited to sign as to come back to school," Stallings said. "It was a round that I wasn't going to get picked in, so that's when I knew I was going to come back to school. I got calls in the 10th and 11th round but I told them that I was going to go back to school and to not draft me. So I was honestly surprised I got picked at all."

With professional baseball delayed for a year, Stallings came back to Chapel Hill, and Fox got to write his name on the lineup card another 55 times and counting. No one knows better than Fox how invaluable Stallings is to the Tar Heels. Just in case he has any doubts, though, he's going to find out for sure a year from now.

"We've been spoiled," Fox said. "There's no doubt about that. We just kind of take it for granted - put the gear on, go back there and catch. I write his name in the lineup and don't even think twice about - well, he might be tired or he might be hurt or whatever. I don't even go ask him. I just put him back there. He's going to be a hard one to replace."

The 2012 All-Underdog Team
With the release Monday of the official All-ACC team, The Unofficial Scorer thought it might be nice to honor some of the players in the conference who overcame some sort of obstacle or long odds in order to make a contribution to their respective teams. The result is an All-Underdog team.

Criteria for this was kind of nebulous, and the nominees fit several profiles. Basically, I was looking for the kind of players who have - either in 2012 or over the course of their career - greatly outplayed expectations.

Many thanks to the conference's 12 baseball SIDs. Their help was invaluable. If you have a bone to pick with anyone who was chosen or omitted for this team, don't blame the SIDs. The final selections were all mine.

One final note. I started out planning to make this an actual team, with one player at each of the nine positions, plus three starting pitchers and a relief ace, etc. As nominations came in, however, it became apparent that we have a plethora of worthy candidates at second base and catcher, and I definitely wanted to include all worthy nominees. So what I've done is just include the players that best fit my admittedly fluid criteria for this team. If there are positions that are not included, well, we'll have to move a second baseman or a catcher to fill those holes.

So without further ado, in alphabetical order, here is The Unofficial Scorer's unofficial 2012 All-ACC Underdog Team.

OF - Thomas Brittle, Clemson. Undersized at 5-8 and 170 pounds, Brittle spent the 2009 and '10 seasons at College of Charleston and got a grand total of 77 at-bats in 76 appearances. He started 15 games. Unhappy with his circumstances and a lifelong Tigers fan, he transferred to Clemson, figuring that if he had to ride the bench somewhere, he might as well do it for his favorite team. Brittle had to sit out the 2011 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but he is not riding the pines. Brittle played every day and he's been one of the Tigers' best players, earning second-team all-conference honors. Clemson struggled early in the year, and it's no coincidence that the Tigers began to turn their season around at about the same time that Brittle embarked on a since-broken 21-game hitting streak. Brittle batted .313 with seven doubles, eight triples, two home runs, 38 runs scored and 33 RBIs. He led the Tigers with 11 steals in 13 attempts. Brittle may be the ACC's best defensive outfielder. Without question, he has terrific speed, gets great jumps and runs great routes. And he can throw, as his seven outfield assists would attest.

2B - Blake Butera, Boston College. Butera came out of high school pretty much unrecruited. Too small at 5-9 and 175 pounds, not strong enough, too slow, the usual insults. Boston College coach Mike Gambino took a chance on Butera, the younger brother of former BC outfielder Barry Butera, and the gamble paid off handsomely. Butera was the Eagles' regular second baseman as a freshman this season, batted .271 in 192 at-bats, and had 10 doubles, three home runs and 29 RBIs. He led BC with 29 walks. As Gambino likes to say, Butera may not be a prospect, but he is a baseball player.

C - Jack Cleary, Maryland. Cleary came to Maryland in 2009 as a walk-on for previous coach Terry Rupp, and was relegated to the thankless task of bullpen catcher. After redshirting that season, he came into his own under current Terrrapins coach Erik Bakich, playing 54 games in 2010, 33 in 2011 and 46 this season. Cleary batted a team-leading .319 this season, .382 in ACC games, and cut down 13 of 27 basestealers. He's also been clutch, batting .395 with runners in scoring position and .615 with runners on third and less than two out. He led the Terps with eight sacrifice bunts and is third in school history with 24. It's also worth noting that Maryland's pitching was exceptional this season, posting a 3.21 staff ERA, and when you find a strong pitching staff, you invariably find a standout catcher guiding them home.

StP - Eric Erickson, Miami. Given his record of success over the years, Erickson is kind of a surprise pick here, until you check his medical history. Lots of pitchers come back from Tommy John surgery, the elbow-ligament transplant surgery. Not too many come back from TJ surgery twice, though, and that's the reason for Erickson's inclusion on the All-Underdog team. He not only had to overcome surgery twice, he had to get an NCAA waiver for a sixth year to complete his eligibility, which was granted late last summer. His comeback complete, Erickson has returned to his Friday night spot in the Hurricanes rotation and went 8-5 with a 2.96 ERA in 14 starts and a team-leading 85 innings pitched. He tied for fourth in the league in wins, was sixth in innings pitched, and 14th in ERA. He was named second-team All-ACC on Monday.

OF - Jake Fincher, NC State. Fincher was not one of the luminaries in the Wolfpack's star-studded freshman class. The State coaches figured to bring Fincher along as a backup outfielder and groom him to replace center fielder Brett Williams in 2013. Unfortunately, Williams got hurt. Early. As in the fifth inning of the first game of the season. Torn ACL. Out for the year. And Fincher, instead of being brought along at his own pace, was thrown into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver. He struggled mightily early in the season, but the more he's played, the better he's played. He finished the regular season hitting .302 with seven doubles, five triples and 19 RBIs. He tied for sixth in the league in triples and was 24th in batting. Blessed with plus speed, he stole 13 bases, second on the team and tied for 10th in the ACC. Aside for an occasional hiccup, he played flawless defense, especially for a converted infielder.

OF - Chaz Frank, North Carolina. Another undersized guy who plays the game big. Frank was a two-time high school All-American at Central Davidson High School so it's not like he was some unknown the UNC coaches miraculously uncovered. That said, guys his size - 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds - find a way to get underrated, and few could have known he'd be such a prolific impact player. The Tar Heels' leadoff hitter, Frank is the sparkplug who seems to be in the middle of every rally. He batted .307 with 14 doubles, six triples, 35 RBIs, 41 runs scored and 14 stolen bases. He tied ranked seventh in the conference with 39 walks, fluffing up his on-base percentage to .429. He led the Tar Heels in steals and triples, and tied for the team lead in runs scored. Frank also is a smart player who understands game situations well.

UT - Tyler Hinchliffe, Boston College. Considered too small (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) and too slow at Highland Regional High School in Voorhees. N.J., Hinchliffe flew under the recruiting radar all the way to Chestnut Hill. A few schools recruited him late in the process, but only as a pitcher. BC coach Mike Gambino liked Hinchliffe's bat as well as his left arm and used him as a position player, especially late in the year. Hinchliffe was BC's semiregular first baseman down the stitch and batted .349 in 63 at-bats. He was 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA in 16 appearances and 22 innings.

OF - Tyler Horan, Virginia Tech. Horan's route to regular playing time was not been the straightest line ever drawn. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2010 and then played 28 games and got a grand total of 48 at-bats as a redshirt-freshman a year ago. This season he batted .282 with 15 home runs and 41 RBIs. He finished second in the league in home runs, and two of his bombs came off All-ACC righthander Marcus Stroman of Duke, something no one else in the league can claim. Horan led the Hokies with 27 walks, had a .400 on-base percentage and a .585 slugging percentage, good for fifth in the ACC. He also got hit by 15 pitches, and The Unofficial Scorer likes that kind of physical sacrifice.

StP - Hobbs Johnson, North Carolina. A year ago this time, UNC coach Mike Fox not-so-subtly hinted to Johnson that it might be a good idea for him to ply his trade at another school. An indifferent student as a freshman, Johnson made six appearances and worked 3 2/3 innings in 2011, which apparently is about the same amount of time he spent doing homework. Fox made it abundantly clear that Johnson's last chance to get back in the coaching staff's good graces was summer school. And that's where the light clicked on for the lefthander, was 6-1 with a 1.40 ERA this season. He emerged late in the season as the team's Sunday starter. He made his first start April 22 against Georgia Tech and carried a one-hit shutout into the seventh inning. In the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech, he took a perfect game into the eighth. It's difficult to stand out on a pitching staff as deep and talented as North Carolina's, especially when you started out as deep in the doghouse as Johnson did. To his credit, he's figured it out in the classroom and on the mound.

3B - Sherman Johnson, Florida State. Hard to remember that Johnson was a walk-on for the Seminoles as a freshman in 2009 and managed 21 at-bats in 28 appearances. He played for Covington in the Shenandoah Valley League that summer and made the league all-star team. That was the turning point. When Johnson returned to campus that fall, the coaching staff knew they had to find him a spot for him. Now a senior, Johnson is a three-year starter and enters the ACC Tournament riding a streak of 188 consecutive starts in a Seminole uniform. He is hitting .274 with 15 doubles, two homers, 27 RBIs, 47 runs scored and an ACC-leading 57 walks. Florida State has been a juggernaut offensively this season, and Sherman Johnson is one of the key cogs in that offense.

OF - Kevin Jordan, Wake Forest. Most people are aware of the story by now, but briefly, Jordan suffers from a disease called ANCA vasculitis. In his case, this resulted in kidney failure two years ago. He needed a kidney transplant and got one from Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter. A 19th-round draft pick and a national-caliber prospect out of Northside High School in Columbus, Ga., Jordan's career almost didn't happen. His recovery from surgery now complete, he was back in uniform this season, but it took some time to knock the rust off his game. He batted .233 with six doubles, one homer and 14 RBIs. That's a far sight better than it could have been.

1B - Jared King, Virginia, King lost both parents to cancer, his dad when he was 13 and his mom when he was a freshman at UVa. In addition, he had major shoulder surgery after his freshman year and sat out the entire 2010 season. This year, he's been a big part of Virginia's offense, batting .279 with 12 doubles, five triples, four home runs, 43 RBIs and 12 steals. He finished fifth in the league with 47 walks ninth in on-base percentage with a team-leading .432. King was a big reason why Virginia was able to stay afloat while struggling to get their feet under them early in the season. He's slumped recently, but the rest of the team has gotten hot and picked him up.

2B - Mark Lumpa, Duke. Clearly, we have an abundance of second basemen here, only Lumpa isn't really a second baseman. Sure, he played some second in high school, but Duke coach Sean McNally didn't recruit Lumpa to play the infield. He recruited him to pitch, and he has, but not so much recently. Thanks to the rash of injuries the Blue Devils have suffered, McNally was forced to put Lumpa at second base, where he made 34 starts and acquitted himself nicely. He batted .259 with three doubles, a triple, a home run and 11 RBIs. His time on the mound was curtailed by his play at second base, limited to six appearances and eight innings. It's been a tough year at Duke, and Lumpa's residency at second base is a symptom of that, but don't mix correlation with causation. Lumpa has sacrificed his own season on the mound (Duke definitely could have used more innings from him) to plug a gaping hole in the infield.

OF - Ryan Mathews, NC State. Mathews arrived at NC State in 2009 and immediately came upon hard times. Just weeks into the '09 season, he had to have an emergency appendectomy, then pulled a ribcage muscle and was done for the season. He'd played six games. He returned a year ago, but so did four other outfielders and Mathews was buried on the depth chart. He played 18 games and started three. In 2009 and 2010 combined, he made six starts and had 38 at-bats. Mathews played for the Wilson Tobs of the Coastal Plain League last summer and had a breakout season, leading the league in home runs and setting franchise records for homers and RBIs. He's started from the get-go this season and comes into the postseason as perhaps the ACC's hottest hitter, riding a 21-game hitting streak. A first-team All-ACC selection, the only one on this team, he's hit six home runs in the last seven games, and has been one of the league's best power hitters all year, hitting .343 with 15 doubles, 14 home runs and 52 RBIs.

C - Stephen McGee, Florida State. McGee suffered through injuries his first two seasons in Tallahassee and played in just 29 games. Now fully healthy, he has assumed the day-to-day catching duties for the Seminoles in 2012 and has started all 55 games behind the plate. His offensive numbers are modest - .236 average, eight doubles, 32 RBIs - but he's not in the lineup for his bat. Any offense he gives Florida State is a bonus. McGee caught 468 of a possible 490 innings this year. He gunned down 39.6 percent of basestealers (21 of 53).
Seminoles pitchers had just 27 wild pitches, an excellent number, and McGee had just seven passed balls. And yes, he is the younger brother of former FSU standout Mike McGee.

3B - Mark Rhine, Wake Forest. Rhine is a converted second baseman for the Demon Deacons. He missed time a year ago because of an arm injury, then came back and played 13 games at third base. He batted just .170 in 100 at-bats. This season he batted .264 with eight doubles and a home run, hardly the kind of numbers you'd expect from a third baseman, but he's played sterling defense, puts the ball in play (18 K's in 172 plate appearances) and is Wake Forest's vocal leader.

2B - Thomas Smith, Georgia Tech. Smith may be the biggest underdog in all of college baseball. He was a three-time all-area selection at John Carroll High School in Fort Pierce, Fla., and was the starting shortstop on a state runner-up team as a sophomore. He wasn't all-world, but he could play. And he received no scholarship offers from college baseball programs. None. Zero. The null set. Knowing Smith was going to attend Georgia Tech to study engineering, his coaches at John Carroll contacted Tech coach Danny Hall and arranged for Smith to try out in the fall. Hall liked Smith and kept him around, and when the Yellow Jacket infield sprung numerous leaks this spring, Hall put Smith at second base. Thirty-three games later, Smith is batting .333 and has stabilized what was a porous infield. He was easily the most unheralded player in the ACC when the season began. Yet without him, Danny Hall and the Yellow Jackets would probably not be in Greensboro for the ACC Tournament this week.

2B - Keith Werman, Virginia. We save the best for last. Werman is the prototype for this team and because he is one of The Unofficial Scorer's favorite ACC players EVER, he's also the captain of this team. Undersized at 5-7 and 150 pounds, Werman is anything but overmatched. He does everything on the baseball field except pitch and hit for power. He also thinks the game as well as anyone. When the chips are down, there's no one you'd rather have at the plate or have the ball hit to. He had a dismal 2011 season adjusting to the new BBCOR bats, but he's responded in 2012 by batting .282 with four doubles, two triples, 20 RBIs, five steals and his usual peerless defense. He's even expanded his role with the Cavaliers this year, serving as backup catcher. Standing behind home plate in the catcher's gear, he looks like your 8-year-old son trying on his daddy's work clothes, but don't let looks fool you. On a baseball field, he's an assassin. At the end of the day, all he does is beat you. Not surprisingly, he's also a crowd favorite. He could have run for mayor of Omaha in 2009. The ACC's coaches think enough of him that they voted him second-team All-ACC.

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