The Tar Heels should feel loose and excited. They're no longer playing to overcome the mistakes of the past. The double loss to Davidson in 2017 is behind them. It no longer looms over them like it has in some way all season.
After cruising to three straight wins last weekend, the team has a blank slate to build on. And with that comes a new challenge — a matchup against one of the hottest teams in college baseball.
Starting Friday morning at 11 a.m., North Carolina will face No. 11 national seeded Stetson in a best-of-three series for a spot in the College World Series.
Both programs will be feeling their way through the Supers, but for different reason. The Tar Heels will be playing on the stage for the first time in five years, while the Hatters are making program history with their first ever appearance.
With that, there is less expectation of what the potential could be. The last time the two teams faced was in 1985, so the distant history doesn't pose an issue of pressure either. But the pitching staff of the team hailing from DeLand, Florida might.
The Hatters enter as the underdog of the series in the middle of an 18-game win streak, the longest in the nation, with a strong cast of pitchers that have been mowing through batters as part of the team's success.
During the 18-game win streak, the Hatters' pitching has combined for a 1.98 ERA, giving up just 36 earned runs across 164 innings.
“Their pitching numbers, they're scary,” Fox said. “Six-hundred and seventeen strikeouts as a staff, that's staggering numbers.”
“We're all sitting here thinking that it's going to be all low scoring games … that means pitching and defense will be at a premium this weekend because runs might be hard to come by.”
Seattle Mariners first-round draft pick Logan Gilbert, the expected Friday starter, leads the team from the mound. He’ll pose a real threat to Tar Heel batters in the opening game — with an 11-1 record and 2.52 ERA from the bump this season coming into the game. He has struck out 157 batters in 107 innings pitched, most recently fanning 14 Oklahoma State batters in seven innings in the Regionals.
To have a chance to take the early lead in the series, the Tar Heels have to match Gilbert's arm with counterpart Cooper Criswell, while finding a way to scratch across runs early to keep the game close.
The Tar Heels pulled out a 4-3 win in the Saturday game against Houston last week after scoring two runs in the second inning, then another in the third to set the tone. To overcome Gilbert, they'll need similar offensive output just to have a chance. The same proves true against Jack Perkins, the Hatter's expected Saturday starter, who has had a 1.15 ERA in 47 innings over the last 18 games.
“We showed last week that if we keep it close we can pull it out,” senior Zack Gahagan said. “We've got good pitching and we know we can win with those guys. We've just got to be able to play defense and score when we need to."
At the very least, the Tar Heels will need to keep up with the Hatters from the mound, but also on the offensive end.
From the plate, the Hatters have been hitting .277 as a team as of late. Brooks Wilson leads the team with a .388 average over the last 18 games, knocking in 25 RBIs and compiling a .612 slugging percentage. With good pitching comes good hitting, which will push North Carolina to keep the hits coming, like it did last weekend.
The games will probably come down to just a few key plays that will tip the balance. But while opposing pitchers pose a big question for North Carolina, one factor of being the higher seed does help the team out: a home field advantage.
This season, Stetson has posted a 32-3 home stand, but a less than stellar 13-8 record away from the comfort of its own stadium. A distance of 590 miles from the Stetson campus could put on a damper to the streak that has stretched out over so much time. Or at least, it'll make things easier on the Tar Heels than they would be in Florida.
North Carolina probably won't be afforded the 43 runs it scored last weekend, so every little advantage it can find helps — especially in the low scoring pitcher duels that are expected.
But whatever the result this weekend, North Carolina has a huge opportunity to breathe outside of the strangle of the past this weekend. With a new opportunity, the team is soaking in the whole experience.
"It can't get much better than this,” Fox said. “It's what you work for since the fall and what these kids dream about to be in this position, to have a chance.”
Soon enough, we'll see what the team does with that chance.
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