Something was just plain weird about college baseball last year. There was a disturbance in the force…even Yoda thought so. But the Tar Heels could sense it even better than their little green friend.
What were they to do? No work to knock out. Plenty of time to hit the beach. Yessir, June was inexplicably an idle month for Carolina.
Head coach Mike Fox has made a trip to Omaha for the College World Series a permanent fixture on his calendar. But those plans fell through in 2014.
In the offseason, all the players sang the same tune – let’s get back to where the program belongs.
Coach Fox famously posts the weather in Omaha up on a whiteboard in the training room. It’s programmed into the hearts and minds of the Tar Heels – a second home.
That’s pressure, for sure. But, as they say, pressure is a privilege.
For the majority of 2015, though, things looked eerily familiar. Poor run support. Fielding errors. Injuries. Late game collapses.
Was it the end of an era? Hold your horses.
Even though UNC’s six-game winning streak was snapped by UNC-Greensboro earlier this week, the Tar Heels have quietly righted the ship.
Most of that turnaround is thanks to the pitching staff. J.B. Bukauskas, most notably, has turned in some impressive innings. He’s got loads of firepower and what’s more, he’s a freshman. Junior Trent Thornton has a versatile arm, equally ready and able to step in for relief work as well.
But for the most part, UNC’s hitting has been streaky and surely not as opportunistic as Coach Fox would like.
The Tar Heels used to be filled with a batting order lined with .300 hitters. Now, they have two. You used to not be able to pitch around hot batters because everybody was on fire. Opposing pitchers had to run the gauntlet – no reprieve. The scoreboard operator got a wild workout.
These days, he’s usually got time to finish his hot dog, type out a report and call his buddy from back home. But it’s time to get used to the here and now. Scratching and clawing. Get used to it. Nothing’s going to come easy.
And now, after this exam break, we’ve reached the home stretch of the season. Crunch time. And the Tar Heels know it. They’ve seemingly flipped the switch – sharper, more focused, swinging freer at the plate. Those things bode well, especially in an ACC that really has only one clear frontrunner – Louisville.
The Cards only have two conference losses. Yeah, that snuck up on me too. Traditional powers from the Sunshine State – FSU and Miami – are predictably potent. But that’s it, folks. After that, we come to Carolina.
As much as UNC has struggled, it finds itself in fourth place in the watered-down ACC. A four seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament sounds cozy to me – made all the more comfortable by the venue.
Fittingly, Durham’s gem, newly-renovated Durham Bulls Athletics Park, will host the tourney. If you have the chance, get out to see some of the action. The DBAP’s got it all these days – fun entertainment, Moe’s, fun for the children and even a new brewery.
But back to the Tar Heels.
There’s a couple determined warriors that want some redemption – Skye Bolt and Benton Moss. Moss can be streaky, but he has a knack for reaching back and getting that clutch strikeout when needed. Bolt, on the other hand, is an excellent fielder and has plenty of firepower at the plate. These two fiery competitors could provide vital leadership to push UNC over the edge.
But let’s be honest: there’s nothing flashy about this team. You won’t find any of these Tar Heels topping any of the ACC statistical categories. Deficiencies abound.
So yes, I know there’s been nothing spectacular about these Tar Heels. But “spectacular” may not be necessary. The tide is turning. They’ve got just enough – cagy veterans, a couple freshman ringers and one heck of a coach who knows how to navigate the postseason journey.
So here it goes – my bold prediction. Go ahead. Do it. Book those tickets now. Omaha’s a pretty nice spot to be in June.
Follow Matt on Twitter @mattdoakes