Chapel Hill, N.C. — North Carolina started 2018 tabbed to win the ACC Coastal Division and ranked as high as No. 6 in preseason polls, but lost just its second season opener since Mike Fox took over the program in 1999, went 7-7 in its first 14 games and fell out of the Top 25.
Now, UNC is back in the rankings for the second straight week (at No. 19) and has “been settled lately,” according to Fox. But he still calls the team a little bit of a work in progress.
“Some teams maybe have it nailed down right out of the gate – we didn’t,” he said. “You may think you know what you have in the fall, but the spring is entirely different, so we knew we were a little bit of a work in progress to start.
“I think our expectations were way too high from the outside because we lost three first-round draft picks.”
The Tar Heels returned an expected, strong starter in sophomore righty Luca Dalatri, who was named to the preseason watch list for the 2018 Golden Spikes Award, but lost three first-round draft picks: JB Bukauskas, Logan Warmoth and Brian Miller.
Dalatri started the first two weekends of the season and hasn’t pitched in a game since, causing UNC to have an effective question mark in the Sunday starter category. Offensively, the Tar Heels struggled to immediately replace the production of Miller (who led the 2017 season batting .343 with team-highs in runs scored, walks and stolen bases) and Warmoth (who hit .336 and led in homeruns and doubles).
A turning point, for fear of being ‘average’
From 7-7, UNC won two games in a row before dropping a 1-0 loss to Gardner-Webb March 14. The shutout was the awakening the team needed, out-hitting the Runnin’ Bulldogs five to three but failing to push anybody across.
“Everybody was pretty upset about that, our team was, internally,” Fox said. “That was a turning point for us. It was like, ‘OK, is this how you want to perform and play after everything you invest and not be locked in for a game?'”
There wasn’t a monumental “big meeting or anything,” but the level of accountability changed for everyone in the program.
“Not that any team can’t beat you, but we certainly didn’t feel like we played real well,” he said. “That was where some of our leaders on our team were like, ‘Enough’s enough, we have to do better, we have to play better.'”
The loss – putting UNC at 9-8 on the season – added a chip to the Tar Heels’ shoulder. Realizing what that loss meant for the team if it didn’t improve was the motivation the Tar Heels needed. UNC went 13-4 in the games that followed.
“Kind of being ticked off a little bit, playing with an edge a little bit,” Fox said were the visible differences after the loss to the Big South foe. “Like ‘OK, our program is better than this, we shouldn’t lose games like this. Let’s all be accountable and look ourselves in the mirror.'”
Fox’s team used a similar edge last season with success after missing the ACC Tournament in 2016. The team’s toughness and need to prove itself is paying off again.
“I told our team we have to play with that edge, we’re not as good as last year’s team, we’re just not,” he said. “You have to think that people don’t think you’re very good. That’s sometimes a pretty powerful motivator. OK, let’s drop out of the polls, let’s go hide and we’ll work our way back up. If people start noticing at the end, that’s great. We all saw what happened last year, it’s the end that matters.
“I told our team if they take a game off, start reading, start believing what (they) read and think we’re better than we are – we aren’t. We’re just an average team at best right now. Some of that was a little bit of motivation, we don’t want to be average. But it was the truth at the time.”
Finding replacement production
Losing offensive production was going to be a tough blow to UNC starting this season, but adding an absent ace to the ‘To Fix’ list at the end of February didn’t help.
“We tried just not to panic,” Fox said. “We didn’t have Luca at his best, then we lost him.”
The (non-draft eligible) sophomore is just beginning to throw some after six weeks off because of “a stress reaction in his elbow that’s somewhat minor, but could’ve turned into something serious,” according to Fox, who calls the break a precautionary measure.
“The good news is he’s healthy and he can start throwing back,” Fox said, adding that he isn’t counting on a return for Dalatri this season, but says it is technically possible. “It’s one thing to start throwing, it’s another to get on the mound in a game situation.”
The weekend responsibilities shifted for fellow sophomore RHPs Austin Bergner and Tyler Baum after Dalatri’s 0-2 start with a 5.0 ERA in nine innings pitched (compared to 2017’s 7-3 record, 3.34 ERA with 85 Ks and just 19 walks in a team-high 97.0 innings).
Baum (4.59 ERA, 3-1 in nine starts) is the Friday guy while Bergner (4.22 ERA, 3-1 in nine starts) became the Saturday starter.
Now, “better starting pitching,” is the one thing Fox feels will allow his team to continue its upswing into the postseason.
In addition to Bergner’s Sunday start opening weekend, North Carolina has used four different Sunday starters depending on the use of the bullpen and midweek schedules.
North Carolina’s relievers have 12 or the last 15 decisions (and a 9-3 record) for the Tar Heels. Over the last seven games, starting pitchers have combined for 29.1 innings of work and the bullpen threw the other 31.2 innings and secured all five wins.
“We haven’t gone deep enough in the games and we’ve taxed our bullpen. That can catch up to you at the end of the year,” Fox said. “Down the stretch, you’ve got to have your starters give you six of seven innings.”
UNC felt it was simply throwing some young players out into roles offensively and Fox believes defense (in all but the Miami series) is the biggest difference in the team’s improvement – saying the team “can’t let that slip.”
But the recent numbers show the roster is holding up just fine at the plate.
In conference play, the Tar Heels rank first in runs (132), RBI (127), on-base percentage (.393) and walks. The team is second in batting average, hits, doubles, triples and slugging (.429).
Sophomore Ike Freeman is doing a fine job of filling Warmoth’s shoes offensively as he replaces him at shortstop. Freeman ranks third on the roster, hitting .316, and leads UNC over the last seven games with a .435 average. Junior third baseman Kyle Datres leads North Carolina at the plate and is second in the ACC with a .371 average and 53 hits.
“We’ve been learning every game,” Fox said. “We lost so many close games – a lot of them. You learn where to put guys in what positions at the end and it took us a while to figure that out.”