OMAHA -- Matt Spencer fancies himself a pretty good poker player, good enough to know when he should go all in.
While pushing your entire stack of chips into the pot can be a risky maneuver every now and then, Spencer had no problem going all in with his career in January when he decided to leave North Carolina and transfer to Arizona State.
Spencer, who hit .267 with nine homers and 39 RBIs over the course of two seasons with the Tar Heels, helped lead UNC to the College World Series finals last year. He had proven, at least in his mind, to be an integral part of Carolina's success, but as the fall semester opened, it became apparent that he and head coach Mike Fox weren't in full agreement on that point.
As the Tar Heels went through their fall practice schedule, it was obvious to Spencer that he wasn't going to be a full-time player in Fox's system. Fox let him know as much, too, calling him just after winter break to let him know that if he wanted to transfer to another school, North Carolina would let him out of his commitment.
"I thought I shouldn't have to earn a job," said Spencer, who was taken by Philadelphia in the third round of last week's First-Year Player Draft. "I thought I should have been an everyday starter, and he said that I would play but not every day. He said it would depend on some preseason games and there were only four or five of them, and I thought that was ridiculous. So when he called me over the break and said I could go somewhere else if I wanted, I jumped at the chance."
It didn't take long for Spencer to figure out where he wanted to be. A graduate of Morristown West High School in North Carolina, Spencer was friendly with Keli Murphy, a student at Morristown East and the daughter of ASU coach Pat Murphy. He called Keli, who called her dad, who called Spencer and, sight unseen, he headed for Arizona, ready to jump into life as a Sun Devil.
"I wanted to get the word out that I was transferring and I talked to ASU very early," Spencer said. "I was really excited after talking to coach Murphy. He made me feel good, so I didn't have much doubt. I was just curious to see what it would be like."
Bear in mind that Spencer's primary reason for transferring was playing time, specifically his desire to be a starter. Well, he played only slightly more for the Sun Devils than he did for the Tar Heels. His 188 at-bats through Saturday's College World Series opener against UC-Irvine were only 12 more than he had in 2006, but it's what he did at the plate, on the field and how he felt off it that made all the difference.
Spencer is hitting .383 this season, 105 points higher than a year ago. He has nine homers, including a three-run shot in Saturday's 5-4 victory over the Anteaters, and 51 RBIs, 22 more than he collected with the Tar Heels. And he hasn't been a starter all season, coming off the bench in 20 of his 56 games. But he is happy.
"I just love the atmosphere here and the way they go about things," said Spencer, who is also 1-0 with a 4.35 ERA in 11 relief appearances. "I love the coach and there's such a positive attitude here. It's more laid back and a lot of fun."
As for his big home run on Saturday, Spencer said he didn't want anyone to think he viewed it as a big "I told you so" to North Carolina, which is making a return trip to the CWS. The Tar Heels won their opener Friday night and, because they are in the other bracket, it's possible Spencer and the Sun Devils could see them in the finals.
"It's not quite that harsh," Spencer said. "I'm still good friends with a lot of the players over there. And I'm good friends with the assistant coaches. Coach Fox and I didn't quite get along. I wouldn't say I'm mad at him, I was just frustrated with the situation.
"Other than that, they can think what they want. It just makes you angry when someone tells you you're not good enough to start every day, but you know you are."
Spencer said he hasn't run into Fox yet in Omaha and isn't sure what he would say to him if he did. But he did say it would be wonderful to meet the Tar Heels in the finals.
"I'd love to, as long as we win," he laughed.
Spencer gambled and it paid off. He'll be playing for the Phillies, who weren't scared off by his transfer or his infrequent playing time, either at UNC or ASU, and all the hubbub about his transfer will soon be forgotten. Sometimes it really does pay to go all in.
"I don't mind taking chances," he said. "But I didn't see this [transferring] as a chance. This was more a sure thing."