North Carolina clinched the division crown with a sweep of Duke over the weekend. The Tar Heels gave up two runs total in the three games, a pitching performance that has seemingly become the norm.
“That’s hard to do - that’s extremely hard to do,” head coach Mike Fox told reporters after the series finale on Sunday. “I don’t care who you’re playing or whether you’ve got aluminum bats. We’ve really pitched well… We’re not giving up many runs.”
The Tar Heels lead the ACC with a 2.72 team earned run average. Recently, the numbers are even more staggering. In the past nine games, the Carolina pitching staff has allowed more then one run just twice.
“Sometimes you’re just like, ‘Alright we've got to get one run and we’ll win the game,'” senior catcher Jacob Stallings said. “We feel like we’re going to win the whole game because our pitchers are so good.”
While the pitching has been remarkable this season, the Tar Heels know they are not going to reach Omaha if they cannot score runs.
Entering last week, North Carolina ranked 75th in the country in total runs scored. As a team, the Heels are batting .277, which is tied with the likes of Canisius and Columbia for 130th in the nation. UNC’s .384 slugging percentage ranks tenth out of the 12 ACC teams. For a top-10 team, these numbers are alarming.
“They’re pitching just on a razor-thin (margin) right now the way we’re swinging the bat,” Fox said. “It’s hard to do, having to keep throwing zeros up there to keep us in the game.”
The lack of run production from the Tar Heel bats makes the performance of the pitchers vital to the success of the team, yet they don't seem to feel the pressure.
“No, [there is] not any extra pressure, because [pitching] coach [Scott] Forbes told us awhile ago we’re not looking to give up any runs to begin with,” sophomore pitcher Shane Taylor said. “Whether it’s a tie game or 1-0, we want to keep the score at zero anyways, so that’s how we approach every inning.”
Taylor pitched arguably the best game any Tar Heel starter has produced this season in the series finale against Duke. Originally scheduled starter Hobbs Johnson was scratched Sunday morning due to an illness, so Taylor took the mound on short notice. The Mullica Hill, N.J. product threw eight innings, allowed no runs on just one hit and struck out eight Blue Devils.
With the inconsistency at the plate, the pitching staff has carried the Diamond Heels this season. However, on their backs, Carolina is once again in position to host a regional, super regional and make a run at a sixth appearance at the College World Series in seven years.
“You also want to hold up your end of the bargain and score five runs so it is not really a game,” Stallings said. “Because you feel like they’re not going to give up more than one or two.”