As Matt Spencer drove across the country during the winter to a new chapter in his baseball life, he could have looked out at the highway and wondered where exactly it was leading him.
The outfielder-pitcher had left a North Carolina program that played for a national championship last year, transferring to an Arizona State campus that he had yet to see. To new teammates, a month before he would take the field with them for the first game of the 2007 season.
To a new coach, whose daughter heckled Spencer at games in Morristown, N.C., where the two attended rival high schools.
“The pride and joy of Morristown West,” ASU coach Pat Murphy said. “That’s what we called him when he came here: 'Pride And Joy.’ My daughter (Keli) went to Morristown East and ragged on him all the time. He was their best player, so people would say sarcastically, 'There’s the pride and joy of Morristown West, Matt Spencer.’ ”
The change was a big one, but Spencer lives by the credo that baseball, and life, are all about making adjustments. His transition from Carolina blue to maroon and gold has been seamless, and as a result, he has the opportunity to help a second team to the College World Series.
Spencer, a junior, is fourth on the team with a .380 average. He has eight home runs and 48 RBIs for the Sun Devils, who on Saturday begin a best-of-three super regional against Mississippi at Packard Stadium.
“It’s been exciting and fun,” Spencer said. “I came here because I thought we had a chance to go to Omaha, and it’s worked out well.
“College is college. Getting used to the campus and finding out everything was made easier by my (teammates). It was a smooth process. I liked how things were run, liked the guys and the coaches. Everything was laid back, and that’s how I like it.”
Last year, Spencer played a lot for a Tar Heels squad that lost to Oregon State in the CWS championship series. However, UNC coach Mike Fox tweaks his lineups often, and Spencer — who played in 64 games in 2006 — went from starter to frequent pinch-hitter or defensive replacement.
His discontent continued through fall practice, and after a December talk with Fox, Spencer opted to transfer.
“The fit between me and coach Fox wasn’t right, and it was time for a change,” Spencer said. “I played, but not as much as I felt I should have. Going into this year, (my status) was up in the air, and I felt like I had earned a starting spot.”
Upon his departure from Chapel Hill, Spencer’s former adversary became an asset. Aware of who Keli Murphy’s father is, he contacted ASU through a third party, and his road map to Tempe was laid out.
“He literally got in the car and drove out here. That was his transfer,” Pat Murphy said. “He didn’t come out here and see the place first. …
“He has handled the transition as good as any transfer I’ve been around. He gets along with everyone and is always in a great mood.”
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Spencer has not started many games lately. Another player — usually Mike Jones or Jarred Bogany — starts and plays defense until his first turn in the order comes up, when Spencer pinch hits. Murphy said the move is designed to give his best defenders as much playing time as possible.
Also, Spencer sometimes comes straight from the outfield to work in relief. He is 1-0 with a 4.35 ERA and a save this season.
“He’ll do anything we ask,” Murphy said. “I don’t know what went on at North Carolina, and it’s not my business. But I’d want him on any team I coached.”
With North Carolina still alive in the NCAA tournament and on the opposite side of the bracket as ASU, there is a possibility that Spencer could face his former school in the best-of-three CWS title series. Should that happen, Spencer said, he will not take the field with a chip on his shoulder.
“I try to do good in any game,” Spencer said. “There will be a little extra incentive if we play those guys, but only because I love all of them. I’m still friends with some of them.
“I wish North Carolina the best, but if we play, I hope that we’re the team that’s dog-piling on the mound at the end.”
Mississippi at ASU
What: NCAA baseball super regional (best-of-three series)
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, 4 p.m. Monday (if necessary)
Where: Packard Stadium
TV: Saturday, ESPNU; Sunday, ESPN2; Monday, ESPN2