Sports

Despite 9-5 loss to East Carolina, UNC is feeling good heading into final stretch of season

North Caroline short stop Ike Freeman (8) celebrates with his teammates after the Tar Heels rolled to an 11-2 victory over Virginia Tech on Friday, May 18, 2018 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Caroline short stop Ike Freeman (8) celebrates with his teammates after the Tar Heels rolled to an 11-2 victory over Virginia Tech on Friday, May 18, 2018 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

There was a sense of satisfaction and ease from North Carolina baseball coach Mike Fox and his players after their loss to East Carolina on Wednesday.

The loss had some bad moments, for instance, the UNC defensive error in the first inning that eventually led to a grand slam by ECU catcher Jake Washer.

That home run gave the Pirates a 6-0 lead in the top of the first inning, and eventually the 9-5 win over the Tar Heels. But Fox seemed satisfied, and almost happy with the way his team played.

“Stadium is full, first time ever, we’re down 6-0 to an arch, in-state rival. Now what are you going to do?” Fox said. “And they did exactly what I would have expected them to do, which is keep competing and try to fight your way back into it.

“I’m going to go to sleep just fine knowing that even after a loss.”

A win over No. 9 ECU, would have been resume-boosting win for the 13th ranked Tar Heels, who are trying to attain one of the top eight seeds in the NCAA tournament. A top eight seed gets to host a regional and super regional in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels did that last year and advanced all the way to the College World Series.

But the Pirates (37-11) showed why they’ve been a tough team to beat this season. Wednesday night’s game seemed more like a road game for the Tar Heels than a home game. The majority of the fans in Boshamer Stadium wore purple and gold.

Pirates fans began to chant, “Purple! Gold!” as early as the first inning.

ECU got out to a fast start, aided by a few defensive miscues from the Tar Heels. An Ike Freeman error at third base put runners on first and second. The Pirates eventually scored two runs after a couple of walks, and then came the grand slam.

UNC baseball coach Mike Fox talks about the final 17 games of the season and what the Tar Heels need to do to make the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels are currently 27-11 this season.

With the count 3-2, junior pitcher Andrew Grogan left the next pitch over the middle of plate, and Washer connected.

The Tar Heels have struggled defensively at times this season. The Tar Heels committed four errors Tuesday night in a 13-9 in over Winthrop. Eight of the nine runs the Tar Heels’ pitchers allowed were unearned runs, or runs enabled by an error or passed ball.

The game against ECU wasn’t nearly as bad, but it cost the Tar Heels some runs, and maybe even the game.

“I don’t know if the whole first inning changes if we pick the bunt up and we have an out,” Fox said of the first inning error. “We’ll never know. I’d like to think the first inning would be different.”

The Tar Heels rallied in the bottom of the ninth inning. After scoring a run, they loaded the bases with the game-tying run at the plate. But UNC junior centerfielder Dylan Harris struck out to end the game.

Aside from the first inning, it was a competitive baseball game, which is why Fox was pleased.

The Tar Heels’ loss on Wednesday was only their fourth home loss of the season. UNC (35-13, 15-9 ACC) is 29-4 at home. The Tar Heels, who are tied for the ACC Coastal Division lead with Georgia Tech, have seven regular season games remaining. They play a three-game series against Pittsburgh starting on Friday, a mid-week home game against High Point on Tuesday and a three-game home series against N.C. State next weekend.

It was around this time last year the Tar Heels were sitting at 33-14 in the regular season before going on their run to the College World Series — a goal they’re hoping to accomplish again this year.

First, though, they must clean up the defensive errors. UNC is 10-1 this season when it does not commit an error, and 25-12 when it does.

“It’s just one game,” UNC junior outfielder Ashton McGee said of the loss. “You still have seven games left and then the ACC tournament, so a lot can happen. We feel great right now.”

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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