UNC baseball: No. 1 ranking, 36-2 record leaves team in awe

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2013 

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    No. 1 UNC vs. Duke

    Where: Boshamer Stadium, Chapel Hill.

    When: 3 p.m. Friday; 6 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

— There will come a time, Mike Fox said earlier this week, when things won’t go as well for his North Carolina baseball team. A time when the Tar Heels won’t produce the clutch two-out hits that have become common, when they won’t be as crisp on defense, when one loss might turn into two in a row, maybe more.

“We’re going to hit a (difficult) stretch here, it’s coming, it’s coming – it is,” Fox said, almost sounding as if he were trying to convince himself that this – the best start in school history – can’t possibly last. “And when it does come, we’re going to have to be able to handle it.”

In the meantime, though, UNC, ranked No. 1 in the major national college baseball polls, is in the midst of something historic. After the Tar Heels’ 14-5 victory against Elon here on Wednesday, even Fox’s players shook their heads in awe at the mention of their 36-2 record.

UNC entered the season ranked No. 1. Expectations were high. But not 36-2 high.

“It’s pretty special,” said Kent Emanuel, the junior left-handed pitcher. “I don’t know. I guess we try not to think about it too much.”

Emanuel, who has thrown two complete games and is 7-1 with a 1.92 ERA, has perhaps been the starting pitcher most responsible for UNC’s success. His offensive equal has been Colin Moran, the junior third baseman who’s considered among the best professional prospects in college.

Moran is adept at seeing pitches and driving them into gaps, as he did Wednesday with a three-run triple to left-center field. But he can’t see into the future and, as good as he believed this team could be, he didn’t see this.

“It’s hard to see our record when you’re 36-2, but I definitely knew that we had a chance to be really good,” said Moran, who’s batting .396 with nine home runs. “And sometimes in baseball it’s good to be lucky, so we’ve definitely had our breaks here and there. But no – I didn’t see 36-2 coming.”

Who could have? Baseball is a finicky game. At the college level, especially, all it takes is one good starting pitcher for a less talented team to beat a vastly superior one. Upsets are common.

The Tar Heels, who begin a three-game series at home at 3 p.m. Friday against Duke, have avoided such disappointment. They started 16-0 before losing to Miami, then won nine straight before losing against Clemson.

Since then, the Heels have won 11 straight, the winning somewhat soothing the loss of freshman outfielder Skye Bolt, who was batting .392 before breaking his foot at Virginia Tech last Friday. Bolt will be out indefinitely.

UNC leads the nation in runs and its average of 9.1 runs per game is nearly one full run better than Troy, which is second. The scoring has been nice, but they could likely get by on far fewer runs, given they rank fourth nationally in team ERA (2.22).

Among the most difficult tests for UNC’s pitchers might be keeping their arms warm between long half-innings.

“I know sometimes we’ll be sitting there and be like, ‘Do you like pitching when you have to sit there for 25 minutes in between innings?” Emanuel said. “I’m like, ‘You know what – if they’re putting up runs, I’ll never complain.’ So yeah, it’s a luxury for sure, and I’m glad our team is able to do stuff like that.”

UNC’s ability to drive in runners might be the single biggest difference between this team and last year’s version, which lost in the NCAA tournament regionals after earning a national seed. UNC’s staff was among the nation’s best, but the Tar Heels struggled to score.

Through the first 36 games last season, the Heels averaged 6.1 runs per game – or three fewer than this season. The victory against Elon was the 17th time the Tar Heels scored in double figures – already three more times than last season.

Fox points to two statistics to explain the success: many more walks than strikeouts, and increased power. UNC’s ranks 14th nationally in home runs per game.

“The key to our offense right now is we have 100 more walks and hit by pitches than we do strikeouts,” Fox said. “And to me, that’s mind-boggling. You’d like to be one walk (and) hit-by-pitch to one strikeout, and we’re 100 walks and hit-by-pitches (more) than we’ve struck out … and we’ve hit more home runs than we did last year.”

Fox has cautioned his team against overconfidence. The Tar Heels host Duke this weekend, and there are still weekend series remaining against N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Virginia, all of which have been among the ACC’s best.

He regularly gives weekly team awards to those whose roles might not be as great as their hustle and heart, so that Moran and the team’s other stars aren’t the only ones who receive recognition.

“I don’t like egotistical, I don’t like any of that,” Fox said. “We’re going to stay humble, we’re going to stay hungry.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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