UNC’s resume currently ranks as the best in school history. The Tar Heels are 48-8 – three wins more than the previous highs set from 2006-08 – and despite not playing two conference games due to weather, their 21-7 ACC mark is one win shy of tying the single-season record and ranks second in school history in conference winning percentage (2008).
On the national level, UNC ranks second in the RPI and wins over RPI Top-50 opponents (21), while also boasting the fifth-toughest schedule in the country.
A closer look, however, reveals that North Carolina has fallen off its peak over the last four weeks. UNC is 9-6 since its absurd 39-2 start and its 6-4 record over its last 10 is the worst out of the national seed contenders that reside in the RPI Top-10. And after a 17-2 record against the RPI Top-50 through Apr. 16, the Tar Heels are 4-6 against that level of competition over the last month.
UNC head coach Mike Fox called the 39-2 start an aberration following his team’s 4-3 win over the Seminoles. As for the recent slide – relative to the program’s start – he points to a combination of things, including a tough closing schedule and poor play.
“Instead of 39-2, if we’re 32-7, then maybe this stretch we’re in right now isn’t as magnified as it looks,” Fox said. “I kept warning everybody, ‘don’t get lulled into a false sense that this is how baseball works.’ It doesn’t. Yes, the level of competition has gotten better and it’s really good. And we’re not playing as well. Things are getting magnified.”
The Tar Heels made a handful of mistakes in their win on Monday.
“We still did just some really, really dumb things,” Fox said. “We’ve got to get better at some things, but we did just enough.”
In the sixth inning, Jose Brizuela hit a ball deep in the right-center field gap and extended the play into a triple after the Tar Heel outfielder played the ball incorrectly off the wall. He scored on a wild pitch to tie the game at 3-3 during the next at-bat.
In the bottom half of the inning, Cody Stubbs made a bad base running read after a leadoff triple. After an infield dribbler to the first baseman, Stubbs ran home and was thrown out. According to Fox, it was a play the coaching staff had gone over a 1,000 times.
“I can’t fault them because they’re trying, but we’ve got to get that part of our game a little under control where we’re not so bent up on trying to win the game that we don’t just manage the basic fundamentals,” Fox said. “‘Okay, that ball’s hit at the first baseman, I stay and I let the next guy hit…’
“Part of it is we’re a little frustrated, I think, with the way we’re playing and sometimes that shows up in being over aggressive at times.”
That’s not typical for a Mike Fox club this time of year. Prior to this season, UNC had posted a 56-14 regular season record after the exam break since 2006. The Tar Heels are 6-4 since the exam break this May, which represents the most defeats during that span since the College World Series run began eight years ago.
“It’s tough to go through a baseball season without any stretch of some tough luck and some tough games,” ACC Pitcher of the Year Kent Emanuel said. “It’s just one of those things that we were able to put off for a while because we were scoring so much and doing well on the mound.”
If there is a negative to a 39-2 start, it’s the lack of adversity thrown the players’ way. This recent stretch has provided Fox’s squad with plenty of challenge.
“We need to have games like that Virginia series,” Fox said. “Trent Thornton needs to pitch in games where he experiences some failure. That’s how you get better.”
Arguably the most impressive stat of 2013 is that UNC has yet to experience a losing streak through 56 games.
“It means my team has got a little backbone,” Fox said. “They don’t like to lose, they really don’t. They really don’t like to lose, probably more than any team I’ve been around. I don’t have to go in there, I don’t have to go say anything because they’re upset with themselves, I think. They know if they play at a certain level, we should have a chance to win.”
While the postseason will provide an opportunity for the Tar Heels to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, that approach may still be a week away.
“I think it will when we get to a regional,” Fox said. “This is technically not the postseason. It is, but it isn’t. The [ACC] Tournament is what it is for us, but for me, I want to go over and play a little bit better, a little but more fundamentally sound baseball and make better decisions and make plays and move the ball and those types of things.
"I think it’s important we get a little bit of our mojo back, a little bit of our swagger that we had when you’re winning games and you expect to win and there’s no doubt.”
North Carolina opens the ACC Tournament as the top seed against No. 8 seed Miami on Thursday at 3pm in Durham, N.C.