Tar Heels blank Princeton
North Carolina baseball players Michael Russell and Mike Zolk do a lot of things together.
They live together, they hit in the lineup together, they turn double plays together and they start rallies together.
Zolk and Russell win baseball games — together.
They might not get the recognition or shining stat sheets that Colin Moran, Skye Bolt, Cody Stubbs — and today Trent Thornton — get, but they contribute to those players’ success in their own ways.
Trent Thornton led No.1 North Carolina (19-1)to a 16-0 win against Princeton (1-11), with Russell and Zolk right behind him.
The freshman right-hander threw seven innings, with seven strikeouts to one walk, and forced many ground balls off of Princeton’s bats.
Zolk and Russell were consistently ready to turn those ground balls into outs.
The duo teamed up for a double play in the seventh in Thornton’s final inning. Zolk, who has a quick exchange at second base while rolling the double play, did particularly well defensively.
“I really take pride in my defense more than anything else,” Zolk said. “Making that routine play is most important to me.
“In practice, working on defense is really important to me, rather than just hitting.”
Lately, Russell has also had a greater influence on the offensive side of the game.
Russell, who has successfully stolen bases in seven of his eight attempts this season, got on base in front of Zolk against Princeton to allow him to drive in the team’s first run.
“Michael can run a little bit, and (in) the last couple games has been swinging the bat really well,” coach Mike Fox said.
Russell has been playing well lately despite suffering from turf toe, an injury for which he received a cortisone shot on Monday. Because of his recent success, Russell has edged out freshman Landon Lassiter for the starting job at shortstop.
And if Zolk can continue his elevated play at second base, he could end up getting a starting gig as well.
“We finally turned a double play tonight — two,” Fox said. “We were sitting on eight for a while, and I was wondering when we were going to get to double-digit double plays.
“(Zolk)’s really been playing well at second base and turns a double play as well as anybody we have had in a while, so it was good to see us get some ground balls. (Russell and Zolk) have been playing well up the middle for us.”
Russell said he feels right at home at shortstop, especially when Zolk is playing beside him.
“We have really good chemistry,” Russell said. “We live together so we communicate real well, we are always talking in between plays and we are always on the same page with each other, so I am real comfortable with him.”
Players like Moran, Bolt and Stubbs will get most of the credit offensively, especially after games like this one where they combined for seven hits, seven RBIs, and seven runs, but Russell and Zolk are there as well, quietly helping them out — together.
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