Heartbreak and despair — these two words describe how the 2017 North Carolina baseball team’s season ended, cut unexpectedly short by an unranked Davidson team in the NCAA Regional.
Bolstered by a 47-12 record heading into the NCAA Tournament, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Tar Heels, coached by Mike Fox, would make it back to the College World Series for the first time since 2013.
But it was Davidson that dashed the No. 2 overall seed's hopes in the Chapel Hill Regional, a 2-1 loss in the Tar Heels' third consecutive elimination game.
The Tar Heels' bullpen ran dry at points through the year and didn't have a consistent Sunday starter. And, at the point of its demise, the UNC offense couldn't put runs on the board.
But the experience last year's squad accumulated from their unpredicted failures may be exactly what defines the Tar Heels this season.
No. 6 UNC will be without three All-Americans from last year’s squad when its season opens on Friday at The University of South Florida.
Right handed pitcher J.B. Bukauskas had an outstanding junior season that saw him become the fourth Tar Heel to win ACC Pitcher of the Year. Sporting a 9-1 record with a 2.53 ERA and 116 strikeouts (fifth in school history) in just 92.2 innings pitched, Bukauskas was named a consensus All-American and a Golden Spikes Award finalist, given to the nation’s top player.
His stellar play led to being selected 15th overall by the Houston Astros. Bukauskas ranks as the No. 76 prospect in the MLB by Baseball America.
Center fielder Brian Miller and shortstop Logan Warmoth will also by sorely missed. Miller, a third-team All-American, was drafted No. 36 overall as a supplemental pick by the Miami Marlins in June after leading all Tar Heel hitters with a .343 batting average. He also contributed seven home runs and 49 RBIs.
Warmoth, like Bukauskas, was named a first-team All-American selection and gracefully manned the left side of the infield at shortstop. His 10 home runs and 49 RBIs led to a first-round selection in the MLB Draft, as he was picked No. 22 overall by the Toronto Blue Jays.
Sophomores are expected to lead the way for the Tar Heels in the 2018 season.
Three UNC players were named first-team Freshman All-Americans, beginning with Ashton McGee. McGee spent the majority of his first year at designated hitter, finished third on the team in batting average (.327) and added seven home runs and 46 RBIs. This year, McGee will likely be the team's starting left fielder.
Starting pitcher Gianluca Dalatri leads a deep pitching staff in 2018. The righty won seven games and posted a 3.34 ERA in a team-high 97 innings of work. The 6-foot-6-inch workhorse was the No. 2 starter last year, and the team announced Dalatri will inherit the Friday night role from Bukauskas.
Dalatri’s most impressive performance of the season came in his second start against Radford on Feb. 26, when he struck out 15 batters in eight innings of work. The 15 punch-outs were the most by a Tar Heel since Matt Harvey in 2010. The sophomore enters the season on the Golden Spikes Award watch list.
Josh Hiatt won the closer job in the preseason and produced 13 saves as a redshirt first-year — an accomplishment that is good for fifth most in team single-season history. Sporting a 4-2 record and a 1.90 ERA in 52 innings of work, Hiatt was not only named a Freshman All-American, but also a first-team All-American.
Baseball America lists the right hander as possessing the best changeup in the ACC. His play earned the respect of his teammates, who voted him tied for the team’s most valuable pitcher last season with Bukauskas.
Right-handers Tyler Baum and Austin Bergner are two other sophomores backing up a loaded pitching staff. Baum was a perfect 7-0 last season, finishing with a 2.57 ERA in 63 innings of work and could very well take over Dalatri's former role as the Saturday starter. Bergner was 4-2 and posted an ERA of 3.00 in 27 appearances (three starts).
Catcher Cody Roberts returns as a stalwart behind the plate to help out his young pitchers. Baseball America ranks Roberts as the best defensive catcher in the ACC, and his play put him on the Johnny Bench Award watch list, the award given to the nation’s top catcher. Roberts hopes to build from his sophomore season when he hit .268 with 27 RBIs.
Right fielder Brandon Riley is the other dynamic Tar Heel bat. The junior had a successful 2017 campaign and led the team with 52 RBIs.
Riley finished with an impressive 21 extra-base hits and hit .317 on the year. He was named ACC Player of the Week on March 27 after delivering two home runs and knocking in eight batters over a four-game span.
Dynamic first-year Joey Lancellotti leads the No. 21 recruiting class in the nation, according to Perfect Game. Lancellotti, who hails from Bensalem, Pa., is a talented two-way player who ranks as the No. 81 first-year in the country.
Possessing a three-pitch arsenal led by his sinking fastball, the right-hander posted a 7-1 record and a 0.31 ERA while striking out 85 batters in just 45.2 innings as a senior. As a hitter, he smashed 10 home runs and hit .493, culminating in a second-team All-American nod from Perfect Game.
Center fielder Dylan Enwiller joins the team after two successful years at Yavapai College in Arizona. Enwiller hit .338 with nine home runs as a sophomore, and his play was recognized by a First-Team All Conference selection. As a first-year, his team won the 2016 JUCO World Series championship.
Enwiller, who will join the team as a junior, is projected to be the team’s starting center fielder. He's supposed to add a quality bat to a team that lost its two best hitters. His junior college teammate, Dallas Tessar, was also named first-team All-Conference last season before transferring to UNC this year.
In total, there are 14 new members of the team, nine first-years and five JUCO prospects.
On paper, despite losing the three All-Americans, the Tar Heels present a formidable team in 2018.
They boast one of the top pitching staffs in the country — with Dalatri as the ace and a deep bullpen. McGee, Enwiller and Riley make up an strong hitting outfield.
The biggest concern for the team could be defense. The Tar Heels' former designated hitter (McGee) is assuming an everyday defensive role, and they're expecting Ike Freeman to take over the starting job at shortstop.
With so much talent, however, and a desire to avenge the bitter taste left by the losses to Davidson last season, UNC has a chance to return to Omaha for the first time since 2013.
And find two other, more positive words to define its season.
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