With the bases loaded for High Point and only one out in the sixth inning, the North Carolina baseball team faced a familiar scene.
The No.19 Tar Heels (4-5) entered Tuesday’s game winless at Boshamer Stadium
— their first 0-3 start in home games since 1962 — largely thanks to one or two explosive innings for opponents.
But Tuesday was different.
UNC pitcher Brett Daniels struck out the next two High Point (4-4) hitters to escape the jam and preserve the Tar Heels’ 6-0 lead, en route to a 10-0 victory.
Daniels’ ability to work out of trouble showed a resolve that head coach Mike Fox hadn’t seen the week before, when the Tar Heels lost four of five games. Fox knows Daniels’ senior leadership is especially important early in the season as players are still finding their roles.
“Brett’s got the capability of striking guys out,” Fox said. “He’s a veteran out there, able to compose himself and make some good pitches.”
Daniels was one of six Tar Heel pitchers who contributed to the combined shutout. UNC held High Point to just two hits, while allowing five walks and striking out 14 Panthers.
Cody Roberts caught for all six UNC pitchers and was thrilled by North Carolina’s improvement on the mound, especially after allowing 12 runs to East Carolina on Sunday.
“Some of those guys didn’t have a great performance last weekend,” Roberts said, “but they came out there with the confidence that we were going to play well behind them. They threw strikes and got ahead, so I think that was a huge step for us.”
Perhaps most encouraging for Fox, Roberts and the Tar Heels was Hansen Butler’s strong ninth inning to finish off the shutout. After opening the inning with three straight balls, Hansen found his footing and needed only 10 more pitches to strike out the side.
The redshirt junior saw meaningful innings in his first two seasons, but missed all of 2017 with an injury. If he can return to form, Butler would add another key arm to the Tar Heels’ pitching staff.
“We’ve just been waiting to see it, and we saw old Hansen tonight,” Daniels said. “It was awesome, everybody was fired up for him. That stuff is gonna be a big role in our bullpen.”
Despite the Tar Heels’ slow start, Roberts said morale is still high in the clubhouse. As a junior, he knows how long the baseball season can be and knows there's no need to panic because of one bad week or disastrous series.
“We obviously didn’t play that great last week,” Roberts said, “but we have a lot of confidence in our locker room right now. We know we have all the pieces, we’re just trying to put everything together.”
With conference play opening next weekend at No.13 Louisville, Fox hopes the tough non-conference series against South Florida and East Carolina prepared his team for what really matters, even if UNC stumbled at the time.
But against a weaker opponent Tuesday, the Tar Heels got the boost they needed to possibly start turning their season around.
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