The lofty expectations placed on the Tar Heels — hosting a regional, returning to the College World Series —seemed not just unlikely, but improbable after the 12-0 loss to the Pirates, the largest margin of defeat suffered by a Mike Fox-coached team since 2001.
Now, a month and a half later, the team stands with a 22-11 record and a 10-5 mark in ACC play, tied with Duke at the helm of the ACC Coastal Division.
Since that day in late February, Fox’s ball club has posted a blistering 19-6 record, including two stretches of five or more consecutive wins. What’s more, the team has done so with opening day starter Gianluca Dalatri sidelined with an injury for an extended amount of time and ACC Freshman of the Year Ashton McGee struggling to hit above .200. The question is how the Tar Heels were able to go on a tear without the two Freshman All-Americans?
The answer begins with first baseman Michael Busch. Busch, a sophomore, hit just three home runs last year and only knocked in 22 RBIs. This season, through 33 contests, he’s more than doubled his home runs (8) and his 42 RBIs rank fourth in the nation. His stellar play, including 12 games with at least two RBIs, was recognized by a nod on the USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award midseason watch list.
He has provided clutch hits at the top of the lineup, and his presence in the two hole has given protection to the other hitters in the lineup. With opposing pitchers wanting to pitch around the dangerous Busch, opportunities have been abound for other Tar Heel hitters.
Third baseman Kyle Datres has benefited the most from his infield mate’s protection. Hitting a spot behind Busch in the lineup, the junior is putting up the best numbers of his UNC career, posting team highs in batting average (.376) and on-base percentage (.463). The two infielders have catalyzed an offense that is tied for first with N.C. State in the ACC in runs (237). Additionally, shortstop Ike Freeman and right fielder Cody Roberts have thrived in expanded roles, both posting career-highs in batting averages at .295 and .286 respectively.
On the pitching side, multiple starters have stepped up in Dalatri’s stead. Sophomore Tyler Baum was expected to be the Saturday starter, but was thrust into the Friday starter role due to Dalatri’s injury and has performed adamantly in the role. He leads the team in both innings pitched (44.2) and strikeouts (51) to go along with a respectable 3-0 record. In fact, he has never lost a game in his collegiate career, boasting an untarnished 10-0 mark.
With Baum's transition to the role of Friday starter, fellow sophomore Austin Bergner has inherited the role of Saturday starter. He’s put up solid, if not inspiring numbers, ranking second on the team with four wins and 42 strikeouts in just 35.2 innings of work.
But the real backbone of this Tar Heel pitching staff has been the outstanding bullpen. The relievers are led by redshirt sophomore closer Josh Hiatt, who’s dominated hitters en route to a 1.65 earned run average and 35 strikeouts in 14 appearances. Behind Hiatt are two formidable long relievers — junior, college transfer Cooper Criswell and senior Brett Daniels. Both pitchers boast ERAs under two and Daniels ranks first on the team with five victories. The ability of Criswell to step into a larger role has made a huge difference in resurrecting a season that looked lost just eight games in.
With half of the ACC campaign gone, it is clear UNC has righted the ship. But questions remain — chief among them, whether or not the team can succeed in the postseason without Dalatri. His health, along with the struggles of McGee, have been two of the storylines enveloping the team.
One thing is clear: that storm has been weathered. If you had told Fox his team would go 19-6 in its next 25 games on that sunny, February afternoon, he might have laughed in your face. But here they are, having battled through adversity, in a familiar position, perched atop the ACC.