CHAPEL HILL — Even a year ago, amid one of the best starts to a season in college baseball history, North Carolina coach Mike Fox spent plenty of time preparing his team to handle failure.
The Tar Heels didn’t often encounter much of it in 2013, but the lessons Fox attempted to teach have been applicable this season. Benton Moss, UNC’s junior pitcher, described UNC’s season to this point as “decent.” Michael Russell, the junior shortstop, said there have been “a lot of ups and downs,” which is a phrase Fox also used.
“Down. Up. Down,” Fox said. “Just a little bit of a rough start, but then our guys recovered and we ran off some wins. … It’s just been a little inconsistent, I guess would be the best way to describe it.”
A year ago at this time, the Tar Heels had lost once. They won their first 16 games, lost one game, and then won nine more in a row. UNC finished 52-12 and the season ended, predictably, in Omaha at the College World Series.
Reaching Omaha has become the standard for Fox’s program, and if the Tar Heels do again this season, the journey will have come after a sluggish start, one that has already featured its share of challenges. Entering the team’s weekend series at Duke on Friday, UNC has already lost nine times – a number it didn’t reach last season until June 2.
“We are not the team we were last year,” said Moss, who in addition to his role on the baseball team is also a Morehead Scholar, marking the top undergraduate academic scholarship at UNC. “And you can’t compare our team this year to last year. We’re a different team. So we’re not going to score 10 runs a game. That’s great.
“But we still have the same philosophy as a pitching staff. We’re pitching for shutouts every single time.”
Moss and the rest of the pitching staff is the primary reason why UNC has remained a formidable team, despite its struggles. Moss, after a rocky finish to his sophomore season, has regained his form and is leading the team in innings pitched. Hitters are batting .208 against him.
Trent Thornton (Ardrey Kell), a sophomore who emerged on a national scale a season ago in the College World Series, has been the Tar Heels’ ace. He has been credited with a victory in five of his six starts, and he’s struck out 44 batters and walked only nine.
“We’ve pitched well,” Fox said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without our pitching. I mean, because we’ve not been a very good defensive team to this point, either. So our pitching has saved us. Several games. For the most part, it’s given us a chance to win.”
Fox, though, is waiting for UNC’s hitting to improve. Two years ago, the Tar Heels were a dominant pitching team that lacked offense, and that to this point has been their identity this season.
The offensive struggles aren’t necessarily surprising, given what UNC lost from last season. Colin Moran, one of the best hitters in the country during his three seasons at UNC, became a top-10 draft pick of the Florida Marlins. Cody Stubbs and Brian Holberton, two hitters who also anchored the middle of the lineup, were seniors last year.
UNC’s best hitter has been Wood Myers (Chapel Hill Jordan), a freshman second baseman. Myers, who is hitting .320, is UNC’s only player with a batting average above .300. For the sake of comparison, the Tar Heels finished last season with a team batting average of .303.
Fox has tinkered with his lineup here and there, but generally it has remained the same. He’s hopeful that Skye Bolt and Landon Lassiter (North Davidson), both freshman all-Americans a season ago, will break out of slumps. Lassiter entered the season still recovering from an ankle injury he suffered in November.
“I think he’s really going to be a huge key, having All-American Landon the rest of the season,” said Michael Russell (Huntersville Hopewell), the shortstop who leads the Tar Heels in on-base percentage. “Because he’s just starting to get it going again, kind of get back in his form. So he’s going to be huge.
“Once (Landon and Skye) are back to form, I don’t think our offense will have any struggles.”
Fox has built a program in which success has become expected. Even he didn’t expect the kind of early success UNC had last year, though, and victories have been much harder to come by during the first two months this season.
In some ways, defeats have made it easier for Fox to get his message across. He often speaks of the importance of having a short memory, and of not looking too far ahead – like to Omaha, for instance.
“There are challenges along the way and you’re going to have seasons like this,” Fox said. “And you have to prepare for them somewhat. And so we talk about that a lot. We talked about it last year – about failure.
“About being more of a blue collar team and that sort of thing, not knowing how the season’s going to go. Well now, it’s not going quite like we want. So you have to go back and rely on, OK, this is what we’ve talked about.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter