Mike Fox didn’t want to put it in these terms, not exactly, but he nonetheless knew what a defeat Monday night might represent for his North Carolina baseball team.
“It might have been close to the nail in our coffin,” said Fox, the Tar Heels’ coach.
But now, after UNC’s 8-1 victory against Notre Dame on Monday night, Fox and his players are hoping that this victory turns into the opposite of that – that it can be a catalyst.
After an 18-2 start to the season, the Tar Heels find themselves clinging to their postseason hopes. Their win on Monday night, a victory that seemed inevitable after a seven-run second inning, moved them to ninth place in the ACC – a precarious position approaching the 10-team ACC tournament.
Even so, UNC, which begins a key three-game series at N.C. State later this week, was better off late Monday night than after a 3-1 defeat on Saturday.
“It showed that we’re not giving up,” said Zack Gahagan, the UNC first baseman who drove in a pair of runs with a double in that seven-run second inning.
Gahagan and his teammates did on Monday night what has often eluded them during the second half of the season. They produced timely hits with runners in scoring position.
At least, that’s what the Tar Heels (33-19, 12-15) usually did on Monday night. It didn’t start off that way, though, and after UNC stranded two runners in the first inning, Fox said he was thinking, “Here we go again.”
So many times during the past month he’d watched his team fail to take advantage of opportunities. And then, in the second, the Tar Heels capitalized on opportunity after opportunity.
During one stretch, three consecutive UNC batters drove in runs with hits: Logan Warmoth on a single to left field, Gahagan with his double down the right field line and then Brandon Riley with another double to right.
The Tar Heels added another run in the fifth inning, giving A.J. Bogucki, a relief pitcher who threw five innings, a sizable cushion. Bogucki had the kind of run support that his fellow pitchers haven’t often enjoyed. UNC had scored six runs combined in the first two games of the series against Notre Dame.
“You go out there, and the game’s 8-0, it’s pretty hard not to be relaxed,” Bogucki said.
UNC in recent weeks has tried to rediscover the looseness that defined the early part of the season. Fox said this has never been a particularly tight bunch but, still, the tension has mounted in recent weeks along with the defeats.
The victory on Monday night against Notre Dame (27-24, 11-14) gave UNC its first ACC series victory in more than a month, since one against Virginia Tech in the first half of April. Since then the Tar Heels had lost series against Virginia, Wake Forest and Louisville.
The momentum, and confidence, associated with that 18-2 start had evaporated. And yet Fox reminded his players of what they could still accomplish.
He sent his team an email on Sunday night.
“Everything is still in play for us,” Fox said, reciting some of what he wrote.
In that email he referenced winning an ACC championship, advancing to the NCAA tournament. First, though, the Tar Heels needed a victory Monday night against Notre Dame. The Tar Heels won decisively, and Fox said he was glad “to see us win, and just keep hanging on.”