Struggling UNC, NC State hope to find playoff groove

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 14, 2014 

  • Triangle Trouble

    N.C. State

    Stats20142013
    HITTING
    Batting Avg..265.277
    Opp. Batting Avg..239.216
    Slugging %.359.381
    On-base %.360.361
    Runs (avg.)5.66.1
    Errors (avg.)1.21.2
    PITCHING
    ERA3.143.08
    WHIP1.301.18
    Strikeouts (avg.)9.149.07
    FIELDING
    Percentage.968.970

    North Carolina

    Stats20142013
    HITTING
    Batting Avg..272.303
    Opp. Batting Avg..227.215
    Slugging %.376.431
    On-base %.374.405
    Runs (avg.)5.77.6
    Errors (avg.)1.40.9
    PITCHING
    ERA2.872.81
    WHIP1.251.21
    Strikeouts (avg.)8.338.05
    FIELDING
    Percentage.964.976

    Source: goheels.com; gopack.com; Key: WHIP - (walks+hits/innings pitched)

Correction: A chart that accompanied this story incorrectly reported that the N.C. State baseball team’s fielding percentage this season is .704 and was .727 last season. The chart also incorrectly showed UNC-Chapel Hill’s fielding percentage this season as .714. NCSU’s fielding percentage this season is .968 and was .970 last season. UNC’s fielding percentage this season is .964.

CHAPEL HILL - The baseball teams at North Carolina and N.C. State last played each other in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series in the second of two games there and then, before that, there was the 18-inning marathon that ended in the early hours of the morning in the ACC tournament last May.

Now comes another rematch – just not the kind that either team envisioned. The Tar Heels and Wolfpack on Tuesday night will be back at Durham Bulls Athletic Park – back at the site of UNC’s memorable 2-1 victory, which ended after nearly six hours, in the 2013 ACC tournament.

The location is the same and the stands are expected to be full, as they were a year ago when the largest college baseball crowd in state history gathered to watch a game that won’t soon be forgotten. For both teams, though, the magic of last season has faded.

The Tar Heels and Wolfpack began the season with equally grand aspirations, and with thoughts and hopes of making it back to Omaha. Yet for both teams, this season has been a humbling journey.

“I think it’s funny the paths both programs have taken this year,” UNC coach Mike Fox said Monday. “You know, we sort of took the same path last year and now we’re taking a similar path this year. But it’s probably not the path that we both want to be on. … But I think it’s going to be a great game no matter what once the game starts.”

At UNC, Fox has encountered struggles – uncharacteristically poor hitting and fielding among them – that have been uncommon during his tenure. The Tar Heels (21-15, 9-9), who won two of their three games against Wake Forest last weekend, rank in the 80s nationally in the RPI and are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001 – Fox’s third season as coach.

The Tar Heels have lost to two teams – Winthrop and Coastal Carolina – that rank in the 200s in the RPI, and UNC has daunting weekend series remaining against No. 1 Virginia, No. 4 Florida State and No. 15 Miami. The game against N.C. State, which has lost twice as many conference games (12) as it has won (six), isn’t as significant as other recent ones between the schools, but it’s important nonetheless because UNC is running out of time to turn around its season.

“It could be even more at stake than last year,” Fox said. “I mean, we’re both kind of fighting for our lives here. Pretty much every game from here on out I think is a really critical one for both teams.”

N.C. State and UNC played five times last season – twice during the regular season and then three more times in the postseason – but they weren’t scheduled to play this season. Under the ACC’s old scheduling guidelines, which since have been changed, baseball teams in opposite divisions didn’t have primary partners like they do in football.

That meant N.C. State, in the Atlantic Division, and UNC, in the Coastal, eventually would rotate off of each other’s schedules. It happened this season, but officials from both schools – Fox and N.C. State coach Elliott Avent included – wanted the Tar Heels and Wolfpack to play each other.

With the help of the Durham Bulls, both teams agreed to play one game, which won’t count in the ACC standings, in Durham in what has been marketed as “The Duel at the DBAP.” Fox and Avent had hoped the game Tuesday night would be a continuation of what both schools built last season, when local interest in college baseball soared.

They were hoping this game again would be a showcase featuring two of the best teams in the country. Instead, as Fox said, both teams enter with a sense of desperation, with hopes of using this as a kind of catapult for the rest of the season.

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

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