Bad streak over, UNC works to build

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 2, 2014 

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UNC coach Mike Fox directs Landon Lassiter (12) as he rounds third base and heads to home to score on an double by Colin Moran in the first inning against Florida Atlantic on Monday June 3, 2013 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

— Inside Boshamer Stadium, North Carolina’s players and coaches are constantly reminded of the program’s past success – reminded of what coach Mike Fox has built during his 15 seasons at UNC.

Signs commemorating ACC championships and trips to the College World Series are inescapable. One, inside a waiting area outside the team’s locker room, says, “Omaha – where the Tar Heels play.”

Fox has followed a familiar and successful blueprint in recent seasons, but there is no guide for what his team has endured this season. Before the Tar Heels’ 9-4 victory against UNC Wilmington on Tuesday night, UNC (16-12) had lost six consecutive games.

Fox said he didn’t know when UNC last lost that many in a row.

“I haven’t gone back to look,” he said.

It would have taken him some time to find the answer. The losing streak was the longest of his tenure at UNC, and the Tar Heels hadn’t suffered that many consecutive defeats since 1997, when they lost eight consecutive games toward the end of coach Mike Roberts’ second-to-last season.

Fox’s teams have been so successful – he has guided UNC to the College World Series six times, all since 2006 – that adversity has been rare. Under Fox, UNC before this season had never lost more than four consecutive games.

The recent losses, which included a three-game sweep at Duke last weekend, have tested the Tar Heels and tested Fox, especially. He has tried to remain positive.

“Just be calm, encourage,” Fox said Tuesday when asked how he tried to approach the losing streak. “Talk positive. Try not to lose it. Try not to flip a switch like you want to do and just kind of go berserk. Because the kids want to win. …

“So if I got on them or went crazy, that would just be all for me. And that wouldn’t be a good thing.”

Fox and his staff might have expected a rebuilding season. The Tar Heels a season ago finished 59-12 and they lost seven key contributors, six of whom were selected in the Major League Baseball draft.

Among the losses were Colin Moran, Cody Stubbs and Brian Holberton, the heart of the Tar Heels’ batting order. UNC also lost two of their three weekend starting pitchers – including Kent Emanuel, the ACC’s Pitcher of the Year last season.

The season got off to an ominous start when UNC lost two of its first three games at the College of Charleston. The Tar Heels later won nine consecutive games before the recent six-game losing streak knocked them out of Baseball America’s Top 25.

“From the top down, everybody was a little uneasy,” Skye Bolt, UNC’s sophomore outfielder, said on Tuesday. “And it wasn’t a panic situation. I don’t want to put it to that extreme, because it wasn’t. It was just – it was a little bit of shock and it was a little bit of ‘what are we doing wrong?’

“We couldn’t figure it out. We were hitting the ball. We were pitching good five innings, and then after that it was just falling apart.”

Bolt and Landon Lassiter, the team’s third baseman, were freshman All-Americans a season ago but both have struggled this season. Lassiter is still recovering from an ankle injury he suffered in the fall and Bolt went through a long stretch in which he said he took “some not-so good swings.”

Both showed positive signs Tuesday night. They combined for four hits and four runs, and Bolt hit his first home run of the season.

“You fall into the trap of trying to do a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more,” Bolt said. “And it’s the game of baseball, and it’ll eat you up mentally if you play into it. So (it was) good to see one go, and we’ll see if we can continue to build on top of that.”

The Tar Heels had been searching for something positive. They found it Tuesday night.

Still, UNC has lost 12 games – the same number it lost last season – and its batting average of .258 is on pace to be its lowest since 1989 (.257).

“Eventually, things have to change and turn around,” said Adrian Chacon, a freshman first baseman who hit his first college home run Tuesday night.

That’s the hope, at least – that eventually the Tar Heels will start to hit better. The pitching – UNC’s team ERA is 2.95 – has usually been good enough to win but even that abandoned the Tar Heels at times during their losing streak.

The expectations, at least, haven’t changed. In the midst of one of his most trying seasons, Fox was happy about one thing Tuesday night: After his team’s first victory in a while, it acted like winning wasn’t necessarily a big deal.

“We’re not turning cartwheels in there because winning is what we’re kind of supposed to be doing,” Fox said. “So I’m glad to see them in there not going crazy in the locker room like, hey, we won a game.

“But it feels good. Not so much relief, but maybe just a deep breath. Is that the same thing as relief? It might be.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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