UNC baseball embraces return to form amid postseason absence
Amid a season-long nine-game winning streak, J.B. Bukauskas imagines that this is what playing baseball at North Carolina is supposed to feel like – the wins piling up, the realization that he and his teammates could be building something memorable. And yet he isn’t completely sure, either.
“I haven’t been here yet since we made the postseason,” Bukauskas, the Tar Heels’ No. 1 pitcher, said on Thursday. “So I don’t have too much insight into what it’s supposed to be. But I would imagine this is how it has been, on those years that we had really good teams – this is what it feels like.”
He knows this much, at least: UNC’s past two seasons, ones that ended without appearances in the NCAA tournament, is not how it’s supposed to be. Before those two seasons, the Tar Heels had become a national power, about as formidable as any college baseball program in the country.
This season, then, has brought a return to that kind of normalcy for UNC, which hosts N.C. State on Friday in the first of a three-game series. The Tar Heels, ranked fourth nationally, haven’t lost in nearly three weeks, and yet in some ways they remain driven by the defeats of the past two seasons.
There were about “10 or 12” such losses a season ago, coach Mike Fox said, that ultimately kept UNC out of the NCAA tournament. If the Tar Heels had won any of one of those 10 or 12 games, they might have continued to play beyond the final day of the regular season.
They didn’t, though. Their season ended last year with a 10-1 defeat at N.C. State, a loss that in some ways still endures both because it came against a rival and because of what it came to represent: the Tar Heels’ failure to reach the postseason.
That UNC missed the NCAA tournament in 2015 was a surprise, given the program’s recent success – the six appearances in the College World Series since 2006. That UNC missed the tournament a second consecutive season last year compounded the initial shock of not making it the year before.
Even so, there wasn’t any “come to Jesus meeting” after last season, Fox said. There were no great off-season revelations that led to the turnaround.
“Last year, just great kids, great attitude, hard work, good work ethic – just weren’t good enough,” Fox said. “Just didn’t win enough games. Maybe one more. None of us were going to go jump off a bridge. It’s not life or death, but I think this year it’s, ‘Let’s don’t leave any doubt.’ ”
And so UNC hasn’t, so far. The Tar Heels have won 27 of their first 36 games, and 12 of their first 15 in the ACC. They enter this weekend after a 20-5 demolition of a victory against South Carolina on Tuesday.
UNC has won four consecutive games by at least 10 runs. And during those four games, it has scored 68 runs – its most over a four-game stretch since 1987. The Tar Heels could have used that sort of outburst at times the past two seasons, when runs were far scarcer.
This season, Fox said of the offensive renaissance, “I think it’s experience.”
“I have this saying, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want,” Fox said. “So we gained a lot of experience last year, not getting what we wanted. So I think what we went through the last couple of years is helping us as a team.”
It also helps that several players are in the midst of their best individual seasons. Bukauskas, a right-hander who is likely to be picked in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft this summer, has been unhittable at times and is 5-0 with a 1.41 ERA.
Behind him in the weekend rotation, Luca Dalatri has only been slightly less nasty to opposing hitters. And, speaking of hitting, the Tar Heels have done that, as well. Logan Warmoth, another junior who is a first-round prospect, leads a lineup that includes four .300 hitters.
The Tar Heels slightly modified their offensive approach this season, Fox said. They’ve been more willing to sacrifice strikeouts for power and have been more aggressive seeking extra-base hits. Unlike the past two seasons, Bukauskas hasn’t often lacked for run support.
“It does help you a lot,” he said. “… Knowing that you don’t got to go out there and be perfect every time.”
UNC has already won several of its most difficult ACC series – against Virginia, at Georgia Tech, against Miami. The Tar Heels went on the road and swept Florida State earlier this month. And now comes N.C. State.
The Wolfpack essentially knocked UNC out of the NCAA tournament a year ago before the Tar Heels ever had a chance to make it there. Most of UNC’s players, strange as it might be given the recent history there, have yet to experience the postseason. That’s driven the Tar Heels, too.
“That definitely motivates us,” said Warmoth, who leads the team with a .355 batting average and seven home runs. “I mean, we’re the University of North Carolina. That’s what we’re known for – going to the College World Series.
“You see all the banners as you walk through the stadium, and you live to look up to that and to follow that up.”