Mike Fox didn’t know what to tell his North Carolina baseball team on Saturday after this, its sixth consecutive defeat in conference play, and he didn’t know how to say it or even when.
“They’ve got all their families out there waiting,” he said after UNC endured an 8-2 defeat against Virginia on senior day in the Tar Heels’ regular-season finale. “It’s not really good to talk after this.”
The emotions – and the frustration – would have been running high, anyway. For the second consecutive weekend Fox watched a conference rival sweep his team in a three-game series.
During his 16-year tenure, Fox has led UNC to sustained success it never before experienced in baseball. There have been two ACC championships and six trips to the College World Series. Yet he experienced something on Saturday he hadn’t in a long while.
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“Was I here then?” he said with a slight laugh when reminded that UNC hadn’t been swept in consecutive ACC series since 2001. “I was. I remember that feeling. Not a good feeling.”
The Tar Heels’ postseason fate seemed so assured just about a week and a half ago. But now they will appear in the ACC tournament only because Duke beat Wake Forest on Friday, and Fox isn’t so sure about his team’s NCAA tournament chances, either.
“I think Tuesday’s do or die for us,” Fox said of the ACC tournament play-in game his team will play in at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. “I don’t think you can finish 13-16 in your conference and lose the play-in game and go to the NCAA tournament.”
A variety of maladies have plagued the Tar Heels during their six-game conference losing streak. At times it has been the pitching. At times the hitting.
During its loss on Thursday night against Virginia, the Tar Heels wasted a strong start from Zac Gallen, the right-hander who pitched into ninth inning and left without having allowed the run. During the three-game series, Virginia outscored UNC 16-5.
One sequence during the the span of an inning on Saturday exemplified the Tar Heels’ struggles. Tyler Ramirez tied the game with a two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning and then, in the sixth, UNC’s bullpen melted down and allowed five runs.
The Tar Heels never scored again. Afterward, Fox questioned his players’ desire and attitude.
“I think we’re feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves,” he said. “That’s kind of the most disappointing thing. Because you can control your emotion and your effort and have a little pride. And to me that was an embarrassment today. That was just an embarrassment.”
It was, without question, a difficult way to end the regular season. That the loss came on senior day – when UNC recognized, among others, Benton Moss and Trevor Kelley, two pitchers who have contributed much to the program’s success – made the defeat especially difficult.
Moss started on Saturday and allowed two runs on seven hits in three innings. Kelley relieved him and also allowed two runs before leaving after recording one out during that dreadful sixth inning.
The Tar Heels, who ended the regular season with a losing conference record for the first time since 2010, will enter the ACC tournament as the No. 8 seed. To earn a spot in pool play, they will have to defeat Virginia Tech, the ninth seed.
Moss, who described Saturday as “just one of those days” said UNC is capable of bouncing back and finding new life in the postseason.
“We’ve got the talent to do it,” he said. “Just got to put it together … we’ve got it in there. I know we do.”