CHAPEL HILL — Colin Moran, the North Carolina third baseman who entered the season as an All-American candidate, still can’t do much these days – just some light field work and some hitting off of a tee.
But the sight of Moran doing anything, at least, has been welcome for a team that eagerly awaits his return from the broken hand he suffered in a 3-1 loss against N.C. State on March 24.
After 41 games, the sixth-ranked Tar Heels (29-12, 13-8 ACC) are beginning the stretch run of a season that began, as most recent ones under coach Mike Fox have, with grand aspirations. To this point, UNC’s dominant pitching has mostly been enough to carry the Heels. Now Fox is waiting for his team’s offense to take its turn.
“We have to be better offensively down the stretch in the league,” Fox said Saturday, after UNC split a double-header against Georgia Tech. “Some guys are just not swinging it very well in the ACC, and if we’re going to make any noise at all down the stretch, we’ve got to get some guys going and producing a little bit more for us.”
The weekend performance against the Yellow Jackets provided a glimpse of the Tar Heels’ offensive potential, but also several reminders of how far they have yet to come. The good came in the first game on Saturday, when the Heels scored eight runs in the first inning of a 12-6 victory.
In the other two games of the series, though, UNC scored six runs combined, losing 11-4 on Friday night and 4-2 in the second game on Saturday. Those kinds of run totals have become all too familiar for the Tar Heels, who have the necessary pitching to make a deep postseason run, provided those pitchers receive run support.
The Tar Heels entered last week ranked fifth in the nation in ERA (2.64). Entering the series against Georgia Tech, none of UNC’s starting pitchers were allowing the opposition better than a .245 batting average.
“Everybody cheers for each other as we go out there and wants to see the other person do well, which is very good to see,” said Hobbs Johnson, a sophomore lefthander who’s the latest addition to UNC’s starting rotation. “Because I know on a lot of teams, it isn’t so much that way because everybody’s fighting for innings.
“But the competitiveness that we have on our pitching staff I think pushes all of us to get better.”
Like the rest of his teammates, Johnson was relieved last week to see Moran return – at least in a limited capacity. Moran has been able to throw, and hit off a tee, and Fox said Saturday that he expects Moran to be cleared to return on April 30.
That would give him a possible return date of May 2, when UNC hosts Winthrop. In 19 games without Moran, the Tar Heels have gone 12-7. They were 17-5 with him.
“When Colin comes back, that’s just a huge bat in the lineup … he’s always driving in runs,” said Michael Russell, a freshman who has helped compensate for Moran’s absence both at third base and in the batting order. “So that’s the main thing. A couple of times we haven’t hit necessarily bad.
“But with runners in scoring position, we’ve struggled. And he’s fantastic at that, driving in runs.”
When Moran suffered his injury, he was leading UNC with a .387 batting average, and he had a team-high 24 RBIs in 22 games. Without him, the Heels hadn’t scored more than six runs in any ACC game until the outburst in the first game of the double-header on Saturday against the Yellow Jackets.
While he watched his team score run after run during the first inning on Saturday, Fox said he didn’t know what to think.
“We went a whole weekend series and didn’t score eight runs,” he said. “We’ve gone a whole week and not scored eight runs. We get eight in one inning, so it’s almost like, ‘What happened?’”
He’s hoping what happened could be a sign of what’s to come, especially after Moran returns.