Difficult Stretch Ahead

Difficult Stretch Ahead

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's baseball team enters its toughest stretch of the season with a squad largely comprised of inexperienced underclassmen. Oddly enough, that may be a good thing for a group that has played its best ball against better competition.

In Wednesday night's 5-4 ninth-inning comeback win over Elon, 16 of the 20 Tar Heels that took the field were underclassmen. Nine were freshmen, including starting pitcher A.J. Bogucki and second baseman Wood Myers, who accounted for half of UNC's four RBIs.

UNC improved its record to 22-15 (9-9 ACC) and moved up 10 spots in the RPI to No. 75. These are unusual waters for the Tar Heels, who have become a mainstay in the nation's elite during the Mike Fox era. UNC has participated in the NCAA Tournament in 12 straight seasons, including six College World Series appearances since 2006.

Youth, however, has taken its toll. UNC's .272 batting average this season is currently the program's lowest since 1989, while its .963 fielding percentage is on pace to be the lowest since 2005.

UNC has lost 10 of its 18 games over the last month, including a six-game losing streak that marked the longest such streak in the Fox era.

"I thought the six-game losing streak, if you look at that, it all kind of hit us in the face at the same time," assistant coach Scott Forbes said following the win over Elon. "We lost that heartbreaker to Georgia Tech, one of our leaders (closer Chris McCue) finds out that he has a blood clot and he's in emergency surgery, and then it just snowballed on us. That's when you could tell we had a lot of young guys."

According to Forbes, the team learned through that ordeal that in order to be good, they had to practice harder and be more "blue collar" in their approach.

"We're just not as deep and as talented as we were last year because we lost so many guys," Forbes said.

The road ahead is brutal with ACC series against No. 1 Virginia, No. 4 Florida State, No. 15 Miami and Coastal Division cellar-dweller Virginia Tech. Boyd's World's RPI Needs Report suggests that UNC will have to win a minimum of 12 of its final scheduled 18 games – it's unclear if the postponed N.C. State game will be rescheduled – to finish inside the RPI's Top-32.

"We need to win games right now, that's the bottom line," Myers said. "We don't care how we do it."

UNC's 2010 team (38-22, 14-16 ACC) snuck into the NCAA Tournament despite missing the ACC Tournament due to its top-25 RPI rank.

With the expanded format of the ACC Tournament this season, the top-10 teams will play for the conference championship in Greensboro over Memorial Day weekend. The Tar Heels are currently tied for seventh with Duke in the ACC standings.

Baseball America currently projects UNC to miss the NCAA Tournament, likely due to the road series at Virginia and Miami and the home tilt with the Seminoles. The elite quality of opponent, however, provides for increased concentration for a young team that has lacked the necessary focus at times throughout the season.

UNC is 3-3 against midweek opponents over the past month.

"That's what we've tried to teach these young guys – we're not the type of team that can be different against Wake Forest and a midweek opponent," Forbes said. "They saw that [on Wednesday] when we're down 4-2 whereas right out of the gate against Wake Forest we're locked in…

"That's what I like about it. Our guys have been on the road quite a bit this year and you don't have to tell them. It's Virginia - they're leading the league. Our guys will lock in every single play."

Another benefit is having nine road games left. The RPI formula was revamped last season to value road wins at 1.3 victories, while home wins are worth 0.7 victories. Any win against the Cavaliers or Hurricanes will catapult UNC up the RPI rankings, which are a valuable tool for the NCAA Tournament selection committee when sorting out the final dozen or so teams in the field of 64.

Despite the recent struggles, the Tar Heels are geared up for a furious close to the regular season.

"We're North Carolina – no matter what happens, you can't put your head down," sophomore Landon Lassiter said. "We're not like that. We're not going to do that. Hopefully we can finish strong. Who knows where this season is going to take us. We could be back in Omaha."

The Tar Heels will play nine more games before exams the first week of May. Since 2006, UNC is 63-18 in regular season games following the exam break.

 

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