Before No. 4 North Carolina lost to No. 25 Coastal Carolina 5-2 on Wednesday, it was playing some of the best baseball in the country.
The Tar Heels had won nine consecutive games. And among its wins was a three-game sweep of N.C. State in Raleigh last month, a feat that a Mike Fox-led team had never done before.
The Tar Heels have another important series starting Friday. UNC (33-14, 18-6 ACC) will play No. 13 Duke (36-11, 15-8 ACC), winners of six consecutive games, at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Blue Devils are having one of its best seasons in program history.
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"They're experienced, they're winning, they're confident, and it will be a really tough task for us," Fox said about Duke.
The good news for the Tar Heels is that redshirt sophomore reliever Josh Hiatt is back. Hiatt was serving an indefinite suspension for "conduct detrimental to the team."
In his first game back on Wednesday, Hiatt pitched one inning, without giving up any runs or hits. He also struck out one batter.
With six conference games remaining on its schedule, the Tar Heels hold a 2 1/2 game division lead over the Blue Devils. Two out of three wins would help the Tar Heels clinch the ACC Coastal Division title, and at worst a third seed in the ACC tournament.
"None of us here have won an ACC regular season before," junior third baseman Kyle Datres said. "So that's the goal, and we want to make it happen."
Here are three things UNC must do to beat Duke:
1. Starting pitching has to get off to a good start
One reason UNC lost to Coastal Carolina was that its starting pitching gave up three runs in the first 2 1/3 innings pitched. Then it found itself in a hole. By the time the Tar Heels got on the board, the score was already 4-0.
If the starting pitching can perform well, then the Tar Heels' bullpen will likely hold do well. The bullpen has been good all year. In 5 2/3 innings pitched on Wednesday, the bullpen gave up only one run.
2. Limit errors
Errors can hurt any team and change the momentum of a game. Errors keep teams on the field longer than teams are supposed to be.
The Tar Heels haven't made many mistakes recently. They have made seven errors in the last 10 games. An error in the bottom of the fifth inning against Coastal Carolina cost UNC one run.
3. The Tar Heels must get key hits early in the game.
The Blue Devils are ranked No. 24 in the country in earned run average (ERA) at 3.38. It has carried them throughout the season.
"Their bullpen is really, really good, so we're going to have to match that with our bullpen," Fox said. "And then those kind of situations you can't make mistakes, and you're going to have to come up with the big hit."
The Tar Heels did a good job of jumping ahead of N.C. State in its series in late April. That set the tone for the game.
Duke vs. UNC
Where: Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham
Schedule and pitchers:
Friday (6 p.m.): Duke's Mitch Stallings (3-3, 4.66) vs. UNC's Cooper Criswell (3-2, 3.00)
Saturday (1 p.m.): Duke's Ryan Day (4-2, 4.12) vs. UNC's Austin Bergner (5-1, 4.37)
Sunday (1 p.m.): Duke's Adam Laskey (6-3, 4.77) vs. UNC's Tyler Baum (3-1, 4.26)