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Catapano maturing at UNC

It was amazing timing.

Rob Catapano, University of North Carolina freshman middle relief pitcher, trotting out for the first time ever onto the hallowed mound of Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. It was the 2007 College World Series.

It also was Father’s Day, and Catapano had a special guy on hand to see him cut teeth in college baseball’s ultimate championship experience.

“My dad was there, and I’m glad he got to see me pitch on Father’s Day,” said Catapano, former Farragut High School All-American southpaw ace who helped the Admirals win three Class AAA state titles, about his father, Rich Catapano. “The chance to get out there and pitch is nerve-racking, ’cause you walk out there on the field and you’re surrounded by people, the stadium’s so big, it’s an overwhelming feeling being on that mound.”

That CWS appearance was fruitful, as Catapano pitched 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief with one strikeout June 17 despite the Tar Heels’ 14-4 loss to Rice.

The 5-foot-10, 172-pound sophomore pitched to one batter in Game One of the best-two-of-three CWS championship series versus Oregon State, inducing a groundout. UNC lost 11-4 and eventually finished national runners-up for the second straight year.

Catapano, 20, labeled his relief appearances, “probably the greatest experience I’ve experienced on the baseball field.

“Just getting a chance as a freshman to go out there and pitch and play in the national championship game, you couldn’t ask for anything better,” added Catapano, who in four starts and one relief appearance in 2008 sported a 3.57 earned run average (no decisions) with 15 strikeout and only four walks in 17.2 innings.

The former Farragut ace appeared in 27 games in 2007, finishing with a 1-1 record and one save with a 4.50 ERA in 14 total innings of work. He struck out 10 and walked nine.

As a freshman, Catapano was recovering from a torn meniscus (knee) suffered during fall practice 2006, requiring surgery. “I didn’t have as much time to get my arm back into shape,” he said.


Though Catapano had four starts through late-March, the sophomore said he’ll likely serve in the Tar Heels’ bullpen for the remainder of 2008.

“They told me that they feel it’s best for the team that I’m more reliable out of the bullpen right now. ... It makes the bullpen deeper, and they just like how I did this summer coming out of the bullpen,” Catapano said in reference to Cape Cod League play in 2007.

That’s where the ex-Admiral excelled, compiling a 3-1 record and 0.92 ERA with 17 strikeouts and three walks in 19 2/3 innings.

However, “I’ve pitched well on my four starts,” Catapano added. That includes two starts against Atlantic Coast Conference foes.

While UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said Catapano “was outstanding this summer in the Cape Cod [League] out of the bullpen,” he added: “obviously, we wanted to start him, too.

“He’s definitely one of our four starters. It is more valuable to our team to have him available out of the bullpen when we play teams that are going to play four to six left-handed hitters. Because Rob can come in and not just get a left-handed hitter out, he can stay in the game.”

Bullpen work is hardly second-class duty at UNC. “The reason we’ve been so good is because of our bullpen,” Forbes said. “Rob is so valuable from the standpoint that he can do both. He’s not going to be scared to come in with the bases loaded, but if we start him he’ll do well there, too.”

As for Catapano’s improved strikeout-to-walk ratio improvement through late-March as compared to 2007, “Just being more relaxed this year, instead of all the pressure of being a freshman,” the ex-FHS standout said. “It makes it a lot easier to go out there.

“And I think doing so well in the summer leagues [last] year gives me a lot more confidence when I go out there this season.”

As for Catapano’s improvement versus 2007, Forbes said his fastball has “improved tremendously, he’s sitting 86 to 90 [mph]. ... He can pitch in to righthand hitters.

“And he’s able to throw his curveball for a strike at any time,” Forbes added. “Now his slider, when it’s working, is nasty. ... It’s a pitch that’s been a little inconsistent ... his change-up’s improved.”

Saying he’s in better shape for 2008, Catapano stressed two goals for the rest of this season: “Throw strikes more consistenly, and being able to pitch to right-handers this year.”


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