Sports

For North Carolina baseball, this last stretch could ‘make or break’ its season

UNC’s Mike Fox: ‘All these games are going to be close. Everybody can beat you’

UNC baseball coach Mike Fox talks about the final 17 games of the season and what the Tar Heels need to do to make the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels are currently 27-11 this season.
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UNC baseball coach Mike Fox talks about the final 17 games of the season and what the Tar Heels need to do to make the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels are currently 27-11 this season.

It was around this time last year that North Carolina’s baseball team was finally starting to take shape.

After beginning the season with a 22-12 record in 2018, the Tar Heels won 11 of their next 12 games. The momentum from that streak gave the Tar Heels confidence heading into the postseason, where they made their first College World Series appearance since 2013.

In 2019, the circumstances for the Tar Heels are similar.

The Tar Heels started the season as one of the hottest teams in college baseball, winning 12 of their first 13 games. But they have cooled off. Since that start, the Tar Heels have only won 15 of their last 25 games. North Carolina currently has a 27-11 record after losses to Notre Dame and South Carolina. The Tar Heels are ranked No. 17 overall by both D1baseball.com and Baseball America.

With just 17 games remaining in the regular season, the Tar Heels now enter the most crucial part of their schedule. All but three games will be at home, including four conference series. It begins with a with a three-game series against Boston College (19-19) on Friday.

Before the season, the Tar Heels’ goal was to reach the College World Series again, but this time win it all. With many of their top returners back from the 2018 team, that seemed within reach. The Tar Heels entered the season ranked No. 5 in the country.

But after falling behind midway through the season, that goal has changed some and their focus has shifted to just making the NCAA tournament.

“You can go from this position now — you can play your way into a national seed, into a host, or you can play your way out of the tournament,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “If we’ve learned anything from ‘16, ‘17, ‘18, it would be that. These last four conference series and these last 20-something games that we have, they are going to make or break our season.”

A poor finish and a 34-21 record in 2016 left North Carolina out of the NCAA tournament field. Strong finishes in 2017 and 2018 earned North Carolina a national seed.

The top eight seeds in college baseball host a super regional, which would be an advantage for a Tar Heels team that is 21-2 at home as opposed to 6-8 on the road. The Tar Heels were the No. 6 overall seed in 2018 and went 5-0 in their regional and super regional games.

The Tar Heels have a 4.12 earned run average, which ranks 83rd in the country among 297 Division I baseball teams’. Their .274 team batting average ranks 101st in the country. The Tar Heels are currently 20th in the country in RPI and have a 5-8 record against teams in the top 50, according to d1baseball.com.

Junior outfielder Michael Busch, who leads the team with 10 home runs and 40 runs batted in this season, said despite their last two losses, the Tar Heels are in a good position. They are tied for second in the ACC’s Coastal Division with a 10-8 conference record, one game behind Georgia Tech. And before dropping their last two, the Tar Heels won 11 of their previous 13 games.

“Baseball is a weird game,” Busch said. “You don’t play as well as you can every single game. It’s just baseball some times. But I’ve been happy the way we’ve been playing — pitching, defense and hitting.”

The Tar Heels have scored 254 runs (7.5 per game) this season, which is 20th in the country. Busch has hit a home run in each of the last three games.

Of the 17 remaining games, one will be against No. 13 East Carolina on May 8, and three will be against No. 9 N.C. State from May 16 to May 18 to conclude the season. All four will be played in Chapel Hill.

“All these games are going to be close,” Fox said. “Everybody can beat you. So it’s about playing your best baseball down the stretch.”

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