In the moments immediately following North Carolina’s loss, which featured three errors, three unearned runs and 10 men left on base for the Tar Heels, Fox had one message for his team: “Tomorrow is going to be a good day.”
Instead of lashing out at his roster for poor play and question decisions, Fox prefers positivity and reminds his players how proud he is of them. It’s a unique approach that’s helped deliver five trips to Omaha over the past six seasons.
“We try not to be negative,” Fox said. “Sometimes we are during the game. We’re frustrated in the heat of the moment, but once it’s over, I really think it’s important that we flush it and let it go.
“You’ve lost. The game is over. You can’t undo it, you can’t unplay it, so don’t go in that locker room and replay the game. The kids just lived it. They don’t need me to replay the game for them. ‘We could have done this, we should have done that.’ We have to turn our attention to tomorrow at 12 o’clock.”
Of course, there are reasons for concern.
For starters, North Carolina has now lost four of its last five ACC series openers. The Tar Heels have committed nine errors and left 54 men on base during those five contests.
“It’s just one of those things,” Fox said. “We just haven’t played well enough on Friday night to win. The other team is throwing their best guy and if you don’t play well, you’re going to lose in this league.”
Staff ace Kent Emanuel is 0-3 during that stretch, despite only giving up 11 earned runs in 34.0 innings pitched. The sophomore lefty tied his season-high with nine strikeouts in a losing effort against the Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech blew open a two-run game in the seventh by scoring three runs on just one hit thanks to a trio of Tar Heel errors.
“I guess they were pressing a little bit,” Emanuel said when asked about the fielding errors. “I know that we haven’t done as well defensively as we wanted to. I think that has just added to it. Our guys they want to do so well and I think maybe just sitting back and relaxing and letting the game come to them might help a bit.”
North Carolina entered Friday’s contest with a .966 fielding percentage, good for ninth in the ACC. That percentage represents the lowest mark for the Tar Heels since the ’06 squad finished the season at .965. UNC’s three errors against Georgia Tech dropped its fielding percentage down to .964.
Observers may note that the ’06 team ended up one game shy of the national title in Omaha, but that Tar Heel edition hit .321 with a .488 slugging percentage and 83 homeruns in 69 games. The current squad is batting .275 with a .380 slugging percentage and 11 homeruns through 39 games.
Preseason All-America third baseman Colin Moran’s expected return on Apr. 30 will help alleviate concerns at the plate as well as defensively.
Catcher Jacob Stallings said the Tar Heels were “just trying to survive a little bit” until Moran reentered the lineup, noting Michael Russell is playing out of position at third base, among others.
“Everybody talks about [Moran’s] bat, we’re missing our three-hole guy, we’re sort of missing our presence, but he’s a good defensive player,” Fox said.
Despite the concerns, North Carolina is tied atop the Coastal Division standings with a 12-7 conference mark and currently rank fifth in the RPI, according to warrennolan.com. In other words, Fox has the Tar Heels in position to make another postseason run even as they attempt to round some stubborn edges.
“I think one of Coach Fox’s greatest attributes as a coach is that he really makes sure that we flush wins and losses,” Stallings said. “You can’t get too high after Virginia and you can’t get too low after tonight because you’ve got to come back and play two [on Saturday]. He always makes sure we know that and I think that’s why we’re so resilient because we don’t dwell on the losses and we don’t celebrate the wins too much.”
Why? Because there’s still plenty of work left to do. Starting tomorrow.