After getting shut out by Gardner-Webb on March 14 and sporting a modest 9-8 record, Mike Fox issued a challenge to his team.
“Look, you want to keep doing this?” the North Carolina baseball team's head coach asked his players. “What kind of season do you want to have? Are we keep going to wallow in self-pity, or are we going to do something about it?”
The next day, the coaches deviated from their normal routine with batting practice. Instead of lobbing pitches to the hitters themselves, they set up machines to pitch 92 to 94 miles per hour. In essence, it was an attempt to prepare the hitters for game situations after they scored a total of one run in two midweek contests.
“You find out really quickly what kind of player you’re dealing with, and what kind of hitters you’re dealing with,” Fox said.
Heading into the team’s next contest on Friday night, Fox was unsure how the hitters would respond to his challenge.
It didn’t take long for him to find out the answer.
After failing to score in the first inning of Friday's matchup with Pittsburgh, the Tar Heels' bats warmed up with two runs in the following frame before exploding for nine runs in the third en route to a 15-3 drubbing.
“There was an edge to us like that coming in, after those two games,” first baseman Michael Busch admitted.
Over a four-game stretch starting with Friday night’s blowout win, the Tar Heels (13-8, 4-2 ACC) have produced 45 runs, culminating in a 13-1 win over Maryland on Wednesday.
“We know we have it in us,” Busch said. “Those guys that started off somewhat cold are starting to get the bat on the ball a little more, which is normal to see and what we like to see going into ACC play.”
One of the players who has stepped up in a big way is shortstop Ike Freeman. As a first-year, he struggled as a utility player, hitting just .174 on the year.
But over the last four games, Freeman is 9-14 with seven runs scored, and he is playing the best baseball of his career. Since Feb. 27, he has raised his batting average to .355, good for second best on the team.
On Wednesday, Freeman continued his stellar play with three hits in four at-bats.
“We all knew he has it in him and it just might be more experience and playing more comfortably at shortstop," Busch said, "but we were kind of just waiting for him to turn it on and it’s nice to see it right now."
Busch was no slouch himself. The sophomore hit the first grand slam of his career, and it was the first grand slam hit by a Tar Heel since April 8, 2017. With Freeman and Busch leading the way, the Tar Heels produced a season-high 18 hits.
Even with the offensive explosion on display, Rodney Hutchison Jr. still managed to shine for a second straight outing. Hutchison, who threw a shutout last Tuesday, brought his scoreless inning streak up to 14.2 before allowing a run in the sixth inning.
It was the only blemish on the day for the 6-foot-6 righty, who picked up his second win and cruised through seven innings of work. It has been a complete 180 for the junior, who allowed 11 runs in his first seven innings of work this season.
“Struggled early,” Hutchison said. “Doesn’t matter how much you think it doesn’t get in your head; it does, a little. So to get back out there, pound the zone kind of build off my previous outing. It feels good and gotta keep getting better.”
UNC is now a season-high five games over .500. The team is clicking at precisely the right time with a tough three-game homestand looming against No. 6 Florida State.
The challenge Fox issued his team six days ago seems like a distant memory now.
But in that short time, North Carolina has resurrected its season and put the rest of the conference on notice.
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