The Tar Heels baseball team has a busy stretch run as they try to make the NCAA Tournament. UNC took a much-needed six-day break for final exams and will now play eight games in 11 days — a stretch that started on Tuesday.
The Heels enter the season-ending sprint with signs of positive momentum, Carolina won four of their last six games before exams to pull to even at 11-11 in the ACC. After posting an 11-3 record in nonconference games to start the season, UNC went 14-12 over the next six weeks to land firmly on the tournament bubble before their fortunes began trending upward again.
The Heels now face ACC series against NC State and Clemson, as well as nonconference tilts with Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina as they look to improve their NCAA resume.
“I learned the RPI isn’t a be-all end-all in 2015 and 2016. We were top 15 and got left out,” UNC coach Scott Forbes said in his weekly show. The Heels are currently No. 33 in RPI. “What you do in this league is very important and how you finish your last 10 is very important. Our guys know it. … You can literally go from not making the tournament to possibly hosting a regional to being a top 16 to be in the top eight. So there’s so much for everybody to play for.”
As recently as the last week in April, it appeared the Heels might be destined to be playing out the string by this point. The UNC season hit a low point when Carolina was swept by Boston College in three games at home, getting outscored by 3.3 runs a game.
“Sometimes a kick in the face can wake up (a team) or p— you off,” said Forbes. “There’s a difference between playing tight and angry and playing like you’ve got something to prove. I challenged them … you can respond one of two ways when you get swept at home. You can pout about it or you can do something about it.
“What happens when you step on a hornets’ nest?” Forbes asked his team. “They come out and sting the heck out of you. We’ve been stepped on. Are we gonna come out and fly away, or are we gonna sting somebody?”
The Heels’ offense responded by stinging the ball over their recent hot stretch. UNC batters hit .287 in the last six games, helping to spur a 45-18 scoring differential. Carolina is led by junior Mac Horvath, who has 19 home runs, 56 RBIs and 21 steals, all team highs. He entered the week with a team-best six-game hitting streak and took home a host of honors weekly honors.
Horvath hit .563 last week, leading UNC to three wins in four games. He had 19 RBIs in the four contests, the best four-game stretch in school history. His eight RBIs in a single game, against UNC Wilmington, were the most by a Tar Heel in a game since 2004. He had five home runs in the four games and posted an absurdly high 2.181 OPS.
The performance earned him four Player of the Week awards, from the ACC, D1 Baseball, Rawlings and the Dick Howser Trophy.
Horvath also called a players-only meeting before the six-game resurgence.
“That’s part of being a leader,” Forbes said. “When you have a leader like Mac, who works hard as anybody on our team, when he speaks (they listen) — because he doesn’t speak a lot.”
“We just talked about what great teams have, and we made a list,” Horvath said of the agenda for his meeting. “And we went down the list and we didn’t have a lot of those things. So we just figured out what we had to do to get the things on that list.”
Horvath had a couple of potential reasons for his own offensive explosion.
“Slowing my rhythm down at the plate,” he said. “I was definitely sped up there. And I actually felt like I wasn’t seeing as well, so I went to the eye doctor and got a stronger prescription for my left eye.”
Whether it’s medical or technique, Horvath is the offensive centerpiece for the lineup. He’s one home run shy of having the school’s second-ever 20-20 (homers and steals) season, and his 42 career homers rank third in UNC history. He’s also the ACC’s current home run and RBI leader.
After getting things right in the locker room and at the plate, UNC finds itself on the right side of the bubble according to most NCAA Tournament projections. Now the Heels just need to keep things going in the right direction.