— Michael Lananna (@mlananna) February 28, 2016
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Mike Fox couldn’t have known. There’s no way he could have seen this coming. Not this.
The fall, all those preseason intrasquad scrimmages—none of those reveal character. The North Carolina head coach knew he had a young team, a lineup full of unknowns. He’s said from the beginning of the season that he doesn’t have a first-rounder or first-team All-American on the roster. That’s reality. How would the Tar Heels—heavy on freshmen and sophomores—respond to an opening weekend at then-No. 10 UCLA? How would they handle hosting No. 13 Oklahoma State at home the very next weekend? Fox couldn’t have known.
But he had an inkling. Little signs in the offseason gave Fox hope that his Tar Heels were building a winning culture, the right attitude, a team.
The signs are bigger now. Much bigger. Fox couldn’t help but laugh, in disbelief, following Sunday’s series finale against Oklahoma State, the last game of a grueling six-game, season-opening stretch. Not only did the Tar Heels take two out of three against the Bruins, not only did they sweep the Cowboys, but they won all three games of their home-opening series via walk-off. Three comebacks. Three dog piles. Three more pieces of evidence that this season’s UNC squad has the chance to be something special.
“Yeah, we did it again,” Fox said, laughing and shaking his head, after senior Elijah Sutherland hit a two-run, walk-off single Sunday. “It’s hard to believe. I’ve been doing this a long time. I can’t recall ever three games in a row walking off against a team. It was exciting.
“That’s a fun locker room right now; I know that.”
Sunday’s 4-3 win came just a day after the Tar Heels overcame a first-inning grand slam and an eighth-inning blown save to defeat the Cowboys, 7-6, in 10 innings. Sophomore Brian Miller had the walk-off base knock in that one, over a drawn-in infield. The day before, freshman Kyle Datres played the role of hero, living a dream with his walk-off single in a 2-1 UNC win in the home opener. As a freshman at Loyalsock Township High in Williamsport, Pa., Datres had once written for a class assignment that his No. 1 goal was to play baseball for the Tar Heels.
Datres has done more than just play. He’s produced. He’s batting .304/.407/.391 out of the three-hole and, along with catcher Cody Roberts (.304/.333/.304), is one several new pieces that have fit seamlessly into the equation for UNC. So far, all those new Tar Heels know is winning—and winning in dramatic fashion.
For Fox, that’s the perfect lesson plan.
“There’s no book, speech, there’s nothing you can do any more than that for a young team,” Fox said. “I’d like to know what my freshmen are thinking, the first six games of their college career. They’re going, ‘Oh my gosh!’ They’ve got to be kind of stunned a little bit. It’s just crazy. You don’t see this.”
Datres was still out of breath on Friday as he described the rush of getting swarmed on the field by his teammates. By Sunday, the Tar Heels had the art of the post-game celebration down to a science. Almost.
“I’d give it about an 8 (out of 10),” Sutherland joked about Sunday’s post-game shenanigans. “I actually got hit in the nose earlier. So I have a little bit of a nosebleed from the dog pile.
“But it was fun.”
Confidence is clearly, and rightfully, sky high for the Tar Heels at the moment, to the point that Sunday’s game almost felt scripted, Fox said. But is this early season success sustainable?
There are indications that it could be. UNC’s unquestioned strength is its pitching staff, which boasts a legitimate Friday ace in junior righthander Zac Gallen (1-0, 0.61 in 14 2/3 innings). While sophomore righthanders J.B. Bukauskas and Jason Morgan have had middling results thus far, the Tar Heels bullpen has picked up the slack. Righthander A.J. Bogucki and lefthander Hunter Williams pitched in all three games of the Oklahoma State series, and neither one has allowed an earned run on the season. Sophomore closer Hansen Butler has 11 strikeouts through 7 2/3 innings, allowing just one run on four hits. Nearly every arm on the Tar Heels pitching staff sits 90 mph or above, with Bukauskas touching as high as 98 mph in the past. It’s a high-velocity staff with equally high upside.
The questions with UNC have centered more around its young offense, which essentially returned just two proven bats in the form of junior outfielder Tyler Ramirez (.450/.593/.750) and sophomore first baseman Brian Miller (.385/.484/.423). The likes of Datres and Roberts as well as sophomore shortstop Logan Warmoth and junior outfielder Adam Pate have been up to the task offensively so far this season. Fox has said his offense can’t just rely on one star, and through six games, it hasn’t. It had three different heroes this weekend alone.
“It’s not that feeling where we have to really press to get runs,” Ramirez said. “It’s just a different feeling; we know they’re going to come.”
But will that feeling last?
“When that really needs to come into play is when you’re not feeling good about yourself and you’re losing some games,” Fox said. “That’s when your team’s character really needs to be good.”
Fox has no way of knowing how his young Tar Heels will respond to that kind of situation, if or when it comes.
Then again, after these first two weeks, he might have an inkling.