On the season, the Tar Heels rank seventh in the ACC with 62 total errors. However, following Thursday evening’s 13-2 home victory in the series opener against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels have not committed an error in five consecutive games.
"I think you can get hot defensively like you can get hot offensively with some confidence and wanting the ball hit to you and that sort of thing,” head coach Mike Fox told reporters following the win. “… I think it’s been the key to our success, because we’ve continued to pitch well, we just had to eliminate all the physical mistakes we were making.”
The Tar Heels defense appeared to turn a corner when All-American third-baseman Colin Moran returned to the lineup against Winthrop. Since then, North Carolina established an infield alignment, is 10-0 and has only been charged with four errors.
“We had to make a lot of changes and I don’t think everybody could get comfortable with the defensive alignment during that stretch [when Moran was injured],” center fielder Chaz Frank said. “But we got a mainstay defense right now in our infield and we’re playing really well.”
Thursday's victory was a perfect example of how a poor defense can lead to opportunities for the opposition. Fortunately for the home team, it was Virginia Tech that made the mistakes.
“They open the door for us with a couple of errors,” Fox said. “They throw the ball away at third and what good teams are supposed to do is take advantage of that.”
North Carolina must be a good team, because it indeed jumped on the Hokie mistakes. In the first four innings Virginia Tech committed four errors, leading to numerous unearned runs, a couple extra men on base and an eventual 11-2 lead for the Tar Heels in the early going.
Committing an error is equivalent to spotting the opposition an extra out. It is hard enough to get three outs; having to essentially record four outs due to an error can prove costly.
This is especially true for North Carolina, as the Tar Heel pitching staff typically does not allow many runs, but the offense can struggle to score at times. That combination lends itself to low scoring contests where any error can be the difference between a win or a loss.
“Pitching and defense is our core and that’s what we’re going to live off of,” Frank said. “With the pitching that the pitchers provide us we really don’t have to play too much defense. We get easy groundballs or easy fly balls and that’s a credit to how good our pitching staff has been down the stretch.”
North Carolina begins postseason play next Wednesday in Greensboro at the ACC Tournament. Against quality opponents next week as well as in the NCAA Tournament, an error is magnified even more, because lopsided victories are far less common.
“We had to [improve defensively], we had to,” Fox said. “We were just kind of hemorrhaging there defensively and I told our guys if we don’t start playing better defense it’s not going to really matter how we hit or how we pitch.”
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, the defense has come around at the right time. In order to make it to Omaha next month, the team must pitch, hit and play defense at the highest level.
“We’re playing with confidence defensively, which is a big key,” Fox said.