Heels baseball back where it belongs

After an uneven start to the season, UNC has climbed into the top five after a sweep of rival NC State

UNC’s Kyle Datres slides safely into third base during the Tar Heels' weekend sweep of rival NC State. (UNC athletics photo / Joe Bray)

RALEIGH — Rock bottom for the North Carolina baseball team arrived on March 14.

That night, just 24 hours after eking out a 1-0 victory against NC A&T, the Tar Heels managed but five harmless singles against four Gardner-Webb pitchers in a shutout loss to the Bulldogs at Boshamer Stadium.

The disappointing setback to a Big South Conference opponent dropped UNC to 9-8 — not terrible, but unacceptable for a team that started the season at No. 6 in the national rankings and favored to win the ACC’s Coastal Division.

“After we got shut out by Gardner-Webb, I think they all got together and sort of had a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting,” coach Mike Fox said. “They were like, ‘OK, that’s pretty unacceptable,’ so we’ve been better. We’ve got a mentally tough group. That’s allowed us to persevere and get on a roll.”

Whether it was a heightened sense of urgency, a pitching staff that finally began to overcome the loss of injured ace Gianluca Dalatri or simply a few more hard-hit balls that fell in for hits, the Tar Heels parlayed that Gardner-Webb loss and the meeting that followed into a dramatic turning point.

The resurgence began with a weekend sweep at Pittsburgh and a blowout victory against former conference rival Maryland. It continued to build with two more unbeaten weekends, against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, to go along with UNC’s first series win at Miami since 2008.

Despite hitting a high-profile speed bump in an 8-3 loss to rival NC State at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in a game designated as a nonconference matchup, the Tar Heels got a measure of revenge — and more — last weekend by storming into Raleigh and winning three straight on the second-ranked Wolfpack’s home field.

“We just keep picking each other up,” said junior third baseman Kyle Datres, the team’s leading hitter at .352. “That’s what you need from a team.”

UNC’s first-ever series sweep at Doak Field solidified the Tar Heels’ lead in the Coastal Division and catapulted them all the way to No. 5 in the latest Baseball America rankings.

“We’re just putting it all together,” said sophomore first baseman Michael Busch, who leads the team with 11 homers and 47 RBI. “We’re not just hitting one game and pitching the other, we’re hitting and pitching each game.

“It’s really shown, because we knew we had it in us. It was just kind of a matter of time before we put it together. I’m just happy with the way we’re playing right now.”

He should be. UNC is 23-5 in its 28 games since Gardner-Webb and was riding an eight-game winning streak after Tuesday’s midweek 11-5 win against UNC Asheville.

The Tar Heels’ growing confidence was on full display during their three games at State.

On Friday, freshman right-hander Joey Lancellotti stepped into the role usually handled by closer Josh Hiatt — who was suspended indefinitely earlier in the week for conduct detrimental to the team — and recorded a four-out save.

Saturday, UNC’s pitching depth was on further display when sophomore right-hander Austin Bergner struck out 11 in eight strong innings. Bergner, now 5-1 and with a fastball clocked in the mid-90s, is rapidly growing into the primary mound role vacated by the injured Dalatri. At the plate, Busch, Datres and Cody Roberts roughed up Wolfpack ace Brian Brown for the first three homers he’s allowed all season.

The tone for Sunday’s coup de grace came in the opening inning when Busch plowed into State catcher Jack Conley and knocked the ball loose while scoring on a short sacrifice fly by Ike Freeman.

The 5-4 victory ended with a save from another fill-in freshman, right-hander Ben Casparius, who got Stephen Pitarra to fly out to right with the bases loaded for the final out.

“They’re a good team and they’re very, very hot right now,” Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said of the Tar Heels, who snapped State’s streak of 13 straight series wins. “You saw (games) between two of the best teams in the country, two teams that I hope hook it up in Omaha (at the College World Series) like we did a few years ago.”

If UNC does manage to make it that far, Fox said it will be because — not in spite — of his team’s rocky start.

“We lost a couple of close games and were just trying to figure out our team,” the veteran coach said. “We had some young guys who had to just figure some things out and we lost Luca, so we all had to take a step back after the first two weekends. Our kids never wavered, though. We told them all along that this will help us down the road.

“We were just saying keep the faith. I think the games we played on the road and the games we lost prepared us to get to this point.”