CHAPEL HILL — There will come a time, Mike Fox said earlier this week, when things wont go as well for his North Carolina baseball team. A time when the Tar Heels wont produce the clutch two-out hits that have become common, when they wont be as crisp on defense, when one loss might turn into two in a row, maybe more.
Were going to hit a (difficult) stretch here, its coming, its coming it is, Fox said, almost sounding as if he were trying to convince himself that this the best start in school history cant possibly last. And when it does come, were 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 Foxs 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.
Its pretty special, said Kent Emanuel, the junior left-handed pitcher. I dont 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 UNCs success. His offensive equal has been Colin Moran, the junior third baseman whos 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 cant see into the future and, as good as he believed this team could be, he didnt see this.
Its hard to see our record when youre 36-2, but I definitely knew that we had a chance to be really good, said Moran, whos batting .396 with nine home runs. And sometimes in baseball its good to be lucky, so weve definitely had our breaks here and there. But no I didnt 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 UNCs pitchers might be keeping their arms warm between long half-innings.
I know sometimes well be sitting there and be like, Do you like pitching when you have to sit there for 25 minutes in between innings? Emanuel said. Im like, You know what if theyre putting up runs, Ill never complain. So yeah, its a luxury for sure, and Im glad our team is able to do stuff like that.
UNCs ability to drive in runners might be the single biggest difference between this team and last years version, which lost in the NCAA tournament regionals after earning a national seed. UNCs staff was among the nations 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. UNCs 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, thats mind-boggling. Youd like to be one walk (and) hit-by-pitch to one strikeout, and were 100 walks and hit-by-pitches (more) than weve struck out and weve 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 ACCs 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 teams other stars arent the only ones who receive recognition.
I dont like egotistical, I dont like any of that, Fox said. Were going to stay humble, were going to stay hungry.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter