This Week With Mike Fox

Russell

The Diamond Heels are 21-15 (9-9 ACC) after splitting mid-week games and then taking two of three from Wake Forest. Next up is NC State on Tuesday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Elon at home on Wednesday and then the team heads to Charlottesville to face the top-ranked Cavaliers.

Coach Fox, can you reflect back on the last week for the Tar Heels?
"It was a busy week for us. Started off on a really good note with a win on Tuesday, (but then) with a disappointing loss on Wednesday against Coastal [Carolina] where we just didn't play very well at all. But, our kids were ready for the weekend with Wake for an important home series. Trent [Thornton] was sensational Friday night and we caught some breaks and finally got us a one-run win on Saturday with a beautiful crowd and a beautiful weekend. I was so proud of our team for competing until the last pitch. Disappointing (Sunday) of course but I thought we were right there and had a chance to win the game. We hit some balls really hard with the bases loaded and they just didn't fall for us. Just one of those things, but another big week coming up."

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A.J. Bogucki pitched 8 innings, allowing one hit. What made him so effective against North Carolina A&T?
"A.J., it was certainly his best performance as a Tar Heel. A.J. has continued to work and improve and get better. He settled in after the first inning where I think he had some nervous energy at the start. He got in a rhythm and settled in and was pounding the strike zone and it was a great outing for him certainly. He gave us an opportunity to score some runs and once we got a little lead for him it helped his confidence some. I have said it before but the sky is the limit for A.J. if he keeps working and improving."

There were some missed opportunities in the mid-week loss against Coastal Carolina and running into outs before the Chanticleers clawed back into the lead. What did you make of a performance like that?
"We did some really dumb baseball things. I almost kind of forgot about that game because it was so bad - I just wanted to kind of flush it. I thought we had an opportunity to go up 2 or 3 to nothing and I'm not sure but I think the game would have been over if we had gotten to that point. If you let teams hang around and then feel like they have a chance and expect to win... That was exactly what Coastal did once they tied the score, the momentum changed and we just did not play well in any phase of the game."

The Tar Heel bullpen only allowed one earned run all week – keeping the team within striking distance in every game. How important is that for the short and long term?
"The bullpen was exceptional for the whole week. Again it is some young guys and that is a great thing for us to see them getting better and the experience has helped them. They have been in those situations before and staying really aggressive. Our pitching coaches have done a great job with that group and we have played good defense behind them. Your bullpen is very critical for the success of your team over the course of all these games we play. They had a great week and were a big factor in our winning."

Michael Russell has started every game at shortstop and leads the team with a .331 batting average. But he also seems to be the emotional clubhouse leader for the squad. How has he dealt with the leadership role?
"Michael cares. He really cares. He cares a great deal about his team and about himself of course about how he plays. He has some very high expectations for himself as well. Early on when those two things were not going quite like we all wanted I think he probably took it personal and rightly so because when kids care like that and are emotional and they are tough and they are intense they wear it out there sometimes. It is what makes Michael such a really good player. I kept telling him that the cream rises to the top and you will be there in the end with your performance and your numbers and just try to lead this young team and lead by example. I think Michael has calmed down a little bit the last two or three weeks and let his talent and all that come through. I think it has helped his performance and some other guys are playing well around him too which takes some of the pressure off of him. Michael was feeling too much pressure I think to start the season – I don't know that for a fact but that is just my take on it. I think he may have been trying a little too hard."

Freshman Tyler Ramirez has been starting in right field and playing well – hitting a grand slam for his first collegiate home run on Friday night. To what do you attribute his improved play?
"Tyler has really played well for us, especially as of late. He has had some good stretches before this week where he has played well for us. We have seen that. People asked if we were surprised by the home run. But, not really - we have seen that in practice and in batting practice. We knew he had a little bit of power there. Obviously that was a big swing of the bat for us and he continues to get better and he is a confident young man and pretty unflappable. He is one of the more mature freshmen and he is a really good student and disciplined. Generally if you have those traits during the course of a season you are going to get better and not get down on yourself. When he went through a tough stretch I think he always believed and realized you have to keep playing. We are excited about him the rest of the season and the rest of his future here."

This week the pitching staff struck out 42 batters while giving away 25 free passes. How important is this elevated ratio of walking batters as compared to previous seasons?
"You know it is something that Coach Forbes has addressed and addresses every Monday with our staff going over the week. It is something that we take a lot of pride in - our pitchers throwing strikes and making the other team beating us and focusing on our defense. We have got a lot of that this year and in the past here. We have focused on a limited number of walks and it has been a little disconcerting that we have walked some more batters than we need to and we need to keep our average down. And our walks are coming at some tough times in the game but again our pitchers are not trying to throw balls. As long as they are trying to be aggressive… there are bad walks and good walks. There are bad misses and good misses. You have to take into account all of it. Our kids are being aggressive and that is all you can ask of them."

You've got a big mid-week game with the "Duel at the DBAP" before hosting Elon and heading to Charlottesville this weekend ...
"Just another huge week - a huge challenge - Tuesday night should be fun and we are hoping that the weather will cooperate. We have sold a lot of tickets. I hope our players go over and enjoy the competition. Then we are right back on the field on Wednesday night against a good Elon team and we get on the bus on Thursday so this is a big week for us."

The team participated again in the "Versus Cancer" program, shaving their heads to raise funds to battle childhood cancer. Can you give your perspective on the event?
"We are really proud of our team for continuing to support Chase [Jones] and the cause. A number of us in this program have been touched by cancer by one way or another and we are just trying to do our small part."

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