Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made headlines a couple seasons ago when he told fans and reporters alike to “R-E-L-A-X” following an early losing streak.
As it turns out, the UNC baseball team decided to use that same advice Monday night at Boshamer Stadium in order to win its first ACC series in over a month.
The Tar Heels snapped out of a pressure-induced hitting slump with a seven-run second inning–on the way to an 8-1 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Having totaled just seven hits in their previous two games this series, some Tar Heel players admitted that the “must-win” situation they currently find themselves in has caused them to press more than they should at the plate.
“We knew this was a big one,” UNC freshman third baseman Kyle Datres–who went 3-for-4 with a home run–said after the game. “We try not to look at the standings, but you come down to the end and you know you gotta bear down and get some wins.
“Instead of just playing all tense, we tried to go out there and relax [tonight],” Datres later added, with a wide smile across his face. “It’s a lot more fun that way.”
UNC head coach Mike Fox–though he doesn’t like to view things in “must-win” terms–decided to send an e-mail to his players on Sunday’s off day detailing their current situation.
He then spoke to them again before the game Monday–bringing to light a cold, hard truth.
“I did remind them today that ‘When you told me, yes you wanted to come to North Carolina, guess what? You’re under pressure,” Fox said. “The expectations are to win here. At every sport. It is what it is.”
“They don’t realize it when they say that, because they’re 15 years old,” the coach said, dryly. “But they realize it once they get here.”
An inexperienced group of Notre Dame pitchers–as much as any relaxation or coaching techniques–also played a big role in the Tar Heels’ offensive outburst. The Fighting Irish got just one inning from its starter–freshman Connor Hock (9.1 IP for his career)–before eventually using seven pitchers in the game.
Three different Tar Heels–Brian Miller, Zack Gahagan and Brandon Riley–hit two-run doubles during the second-inning outburst, while shortstop Logan Warmoth also added an RBI single.
It all started after UNC loaded the bases for Miller, putting its top hitter in a position to come through with runners in scoring position–which has been another of the team’s problem areas this season.
By the end of the frame, the Tar Heels had already amassed seven hits–matching their total from the previous 18 innings.
Four of the team’s players ended the game with multiple hits, as Miller and Datres led the way with three apiece.
Datres’ fifth-inning homer–his third of the season–gave UNC some extra breathing room that finally allowed the pitching staff to get in some relaxing of their own.
Right-hander Jason Morgan started on the mound for the Tar Heels, but was pulled after allowing the first two men he faced in the fourth inning to reach base.
AJ Bogucki then took over and tossed five innings of no-hit ball through the eighth to pick up the victory.
“When you go out there, and the game’s 8-0, it’s pretty hard to not be relaxed,” Bogucki said. “You know you can just throw the ball over the plate.”
Spencer Trayner and Hansen Butler combined to finish off the Fighting Irish in the ninth, but not before the shutout was erased by Torii Hunter Jr.’s RBI single.
It was an occasion where yet another great performance by the Tar Heel pitching staff became merely a footnote because of what was going on at the plate.
Nothing matters more for UNC right now than to get its hitters loose–and in a rhythm–down the stretch.
Entering the day, the Tar Heels found themselves in 12th place in the ACC, which matters because only the top 10 teams advance to the conference tournament in Durham.
Notre Dame was 9th in the standings, but drops out of the mix after Monday’s loss–replaced by UNC.
Usually, it’s hyperbole to think each game in a season full of them can be so important.
But for all intents and purposes, the Tar Heels’ postseason has already begun.
“It was like an elimination game,” Fox said. “It wasn’t quite that because we’ve still got three games to play, but if we’d have lost tonight that might have been….close to the nail in our coffin”
UNC will head to Raleigh on Thursday for the beginning of its final, and most important, series of the season against rival NC State–the nation’s No. 13 team.
- Before Monday, UNC hadn’t won an ACC series since April 8-10, when it took two of three from Virginia Tech.
- The Tar Heels went 4-for-13 (.308) with runners in scoring position.
- It was Logan Warmoth’s 20th multi-hit game of the season.
- Tyler Ramirez went 0-for-2 for UNC while batting second–but drew three walks in the process.