CHAPEL HILL — Amid the best start in school history, back when North Carolina was putting together double-digit win streaks with ease, Tar Heels coach Mike Fox warned of difficult times ahead. He spoke of the adversity his team was sure to endure, eventually, and he hoped his players would handle it well.
Fox didnt go so far on Thursday night to say that this his teams 10-4 loss against Virginia is the kind of adversity he was talking about. After all it was only a loss, and one against a team thats been nearly as good as any in the nation this season.
Still, the defeat was UNCs third in its past five games. To put that into perspective, the Heels third loss overall this season came in their 43rd game.
"We lost to a really, really good team," Fox said. "And thats going to happen Weve got some guys in that locker room that are tough and leaders and dont like to lose. You want those guys to keep your team from crumbling.
Were not standing on the ledge ready to jump off.
The defeat was the second consecutive in the first game of a series against an ACC opponent, and now the Tar Heels (46-7, 20-6 ACC) are in danger of losing their second consecutive conference series. After Georgia Tech won two of three games against UNC last weekend, the Heels for the first time this season entered a week without being ranked No. 1.
Now theyll attempt to protect another season-long streak. UNC is the last team in the nation that hasn't lost consecutive games.
The two things that have propelled the Tar Heels dominant pitching and timely, productive hitting with runners in scoring position eluded them on Thursday against No. 7 Virginia. Kent Emanuel, the junior left-hander, lasted five innings his second-shortest outing of the season and allowed 10 hits and six runs, four of them earned.
The Cavaliers (44-8, 21-7) consistently put runners on base against Emanuel, who escaped trouble in the first inning before Virginia scored two runs apiece in the second, fourth and fifth innings. The final two of those six runs broke a 4-4 tie, after UNC had taken a 4-2 lead with a pair of runs in the third.
Just a bad day at the office, Emanuel said. I think everything was just up (in the strike zone) as simple as that. I think that was the only issue with today. They were able to just string a bunch of hits together.
The Cavaliers didnt build their lead in chunks.
They used a sacrifice fly here, a single there. Virginia used a pair of singles, one of them an infield single from designated hitter Derek Fisher, to drive in its two runs in the fifth. Both of those were unearned, after right fielder Joe McCarthy led off the inning and reached on an error by UNC third baseman Colin Moran.
Moran has been one of the best hitters in the nation this season, and the Tar Heels have been the most productive offensive team in the country, too. But, after some early success, they never broke through against Brandon Waddell, the Cavaliers freshman left-hander.
After retiring the Tar Heels in order in the first, Waddell allowed a combined four runs and five hits during the next two innings. After that, though, UNC managed just three hits against him.
The Heels best chance to rally came in the sixth, with Virginia leading 7-4. After a walk and an infield single, UNC loaded the bases with one out when Mike Zolk reached on an error by first baseman Jared King. Waddell, though, retained his composure and recorded the next two outs on shallow fly balls to center field.
The Cavaliers added two more runs in the eighth inning off of UNC reliever Trevor Kelley. Both the 10 runs the Tar Heels allowed and the 17 hits they surrendered were season highs. Offensively, it was the fourth time in five games that UNC failed to score more than four runs.
Though Fox dismissed the thought that a lone loss represented much adversity, he said we do have our backs against the wall a little bit. A victory in one of the next two games against the Cavaliers would give UNC its first regular season ACC championship since 1990.
Well respond well we always have all year, Emanuel said. And weve got a great team and theres no doubt in my mind well go out and win these next two.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter