North Carolina

UNC baseball enters stretch run with plenty to prove

The meal money has arrived now and so have the end of classes – two things that annually signal the arrival of the time of the season college baseball players most anticipate.

“This is a neat time of year,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said earlier this week, but it’s also something of a stressful time of year – especially this season, for this particular Tar Heels team.

When school’s out – UNC’s players finish their final exams this week – they’re allowed to receive a daily stipend, of sorts, to pay for meals. It can range from $20 to $30 per day, Fox said, and his players have learned where the specials are.

That’s one reason why May is long anticipated. Another, for UNC, is this: Now’s the time of year when it can most prove itself, and solidify its position for the postseason.

Only 10 of the ACC’s 14 teams (Syracuse does not field a baseball team) make the league tournament. If it began today, UNC would be among the last teams in. The Tar Heels’ perilous position in the conference standings raises the significance of their upcoming final three ACC series.

The first of those begins Friday with a three-game homestand against Louisville, a consensus top 10 team that leads the ACC in both batting average and earned run average. Louisville presents UNC with one of its most significant challenges but also with important opportunities.

UNC with a strong performance this weekend could bolster its postseason resume. The Tar Heels could also build momentum and further distance themselves from the disappointment they often experienced in April, when they lost 11 of 19 games.

“It’s no secret that April was a tough one for us, for sure,” Cody Roberts, a freshman catcher, said earlier this week. “We came out really hot (to start the season) but I think these past three games, we’ve really just kind of taken a step back and said, you know what, we’ve got to regain our focus here.”

There are indicators UNC did that. After losing three consecutive games in late April at Wake Forest in their most recent ACC series, the Tar Heels responded with three consecutive victories – all of them in mid-week games, against UNCW, Campbell and VCU.

Fox liked what he saw, in particular, during UNC’s 11-0 victory against VCU on Tuesday. He said he was “proud” of his team, and he’s confident that this season the Tar Heels are better equipped to handle challenging stretches than they were last year, when leadership lacked.

“We definitely didn’t have good leadership last year,” Fox said. “So if you don’t have good leadership, it costs you. It costs you in every area.

“... The ultimate cost to us was not making the (NCAA) tournament, obviously, but there are things that go on all throughout the season that lead up to that final decision that’s made by the committee.”

Zac Gallen, a junior pitcher whom Fox designated as a team captain, said he and his teammates didn’t even gather to watch the NCAA tournament selection show last year. They knew.

The Tar Heels had built a tradition of annual NCAA tournament trips, and frequent ones to a Super Regional and the College World Series. And then a long streak came to an end. UNC a season ago failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.

The disappointment of making that kind of dubious history has stuck with the players who experienced it. Those memories are still motivating, Gallen said, and the struggles at the end of last season made him and his teammates say, “Enough of that.”

“You don’t want to leave here with your legacy being (that you) went to a regional one year out of three – especially when you play at a place like this, with such prestigious tradition,” Gallen said.

In some ways that’s what this season has been about, for Gallen and others: getting the program back to where they believe it belongs. The next three weekends – with series against Lousiville, Notre Dame and N.C. State – will go a long ways toward determining UNC’s ability to achieve that goal.

The Tar Heels have been waiting for this opportunity – another ACC series, and one that happens to be against one of the best teams in the country – since suffering that three-game sweep at Wake Forest. And now it’s arrived, perhaps the most important series of the season to this point.

“It’s kind of like, all right, let’s go on a roll now,” said Gallen, UNC’s No. 1 pitcher. “Enough messing around. It’s time to go.”