It was something of a small moment, a footnote during North Carolina's 7-1 victory against N.C. State here on Saturday, but to Mike Fox, the Tar Heels coach, it provided further proof of his team's continuing maturation process.
UNC didn't necessarily need the insurance runs, not with how right-hander Luca Dalatri started the game, allowing one run through six innings, and not with how Rodney Hutchison, Jr., finished it. And yet those runs came, anyway, on Logan Warmoth's single in the eighth inning.
Warmoth's hit, with the bases loaded, drove home two runs. A 5-1 lead grew to 7-1 and, perhaps more important, UNC's momentum and confidence and mojo, which seem to be ever-expanding qualities these days, grew with it.
“I'm so proud of Logan Warmoth,” Fox said of UNC's junior shortstop. “He would have never been able to do that the last two years. To step up there after being 0-for-4, it would have just killed him.
“But he's learned how to manage that part of the game. Failure is part of it, if you want to call it failure – just not having good at-bats. So to step up there that last one and drive in two runs was big.”
The Tar Heels failed often last season, and the season before that. Both of them ended, in surprising fashion given UNC's recent history, without a bid to the NCAA tournament.
As UNC's sophomore third baseman Kyle Datres said on Saturday, though, this “is a totally different team than last year.” The Tar Heels have proven that lately, especially. The victory on Saturday was their 11th consecutive. They've now won their first six ACC series of the season.
Two seasons ago, UNC won only five conference series. Last year, it won four.
“Is that what it was?” Fox asked, sounding as though he'd have rather forgotten last season.
In many ways, though, the shortcomings from a season ago have inspired parts of UNC's turnaround. Warmoth's eighth inning single up the middle on Saturday was a small example. There are plenty of others, including UNC's overall late-inning success.
The Tar Heels (29-6, 14-3 ACC), ranked fourth nationally, turned a close game into a 7-2 victory against N.C. State (19-17, 7-10) on Friday. On Saturday, UNC scored six of its seven runs after the fifth inning, chasing Wolfpack starter Brian Brown out of the game with nobody out in the sixth.
Datres was one of five UNC players who drove in runs. Warmoth’s late single, which drove in those two runners in the eighth, was the most productive of the Tar Heels’ 10 hits.
“We've grown up, these kids have grown up, really, since last year,” Fox said. “These kids have learned. They've learned from the ups and downs the last couple of years, and how to handle things, and how not to handle them. And it's paying off, I think.”
The Tar Heels' pitching has helped, too. J.B. Bukauskas, the junior who is among the nation’s top Major League pitching prospects, is among the best Friday starters in the country. Behind him is Dalatri, a 6-foot-6 freshman right-hander who controlled N.C. State's lineup on Saturday.
Dalatri allowed five hits and struck out five, and did it all while throwing to Brandon Martorano, a freshman catcher who was a teammate of Dalatri's at Christian Brothers Academy in New Jersey. They met each other the summer before they entered the eighth grade.
“Having Brandon back there really helps me out when I'm going through a hard time or I'm trying to find the strike zone he comes out, he knows exactly what to tell me,” Dalatri said. “He knows how to communicate with me.”
There wasn't much of a need for extra communication on Saturday. After N.C. State scored in the second inning, it didn't score again. Dalatri allowed three base runners during the next four innings, UNC broke the game open late and it showed, as it often has, that this UNC team isn’t much like the past two.