Monday with Mike Fox

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- North Carolina began the 2011 season in impressive fashion over the weekend in California with a four-game sweep. Shortly after head coach Mike Fox returned from the West Coast, Inside Carolina caught up with him for an exclusive interview.

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What were your impressions of the opening weekend?
"Obviously it was a great start for us. We were not quite sure what to expect opening a new season on the road which we have not done in a while. It could not have gone any better from our standpoint - certainly from the wins and losses, but we were able to play a lot of guys and pitch a lot of guys and we had some close games, low scoring games, coming from behind and going into extra innings. We had everything we could have asked for in terms of how the four games played out for us. In that regard we certainly are happy to get four wins and get home safely and have a home stretch coming up."

Can you give some insight on how this trip to the USC Tournament was set up and how the game with Top 10-ranked Cal State Fullerton came to get scheduled?
"Scheduling is done really early now - earlier than it ever has been. I think it has been in the making for a year and a half or two years. The former coach at Southern Cal had contacted us about coming to their tournament and in turn they would come here and play us for a three-game series and so we started talking about it. Obviously they have a storied program and we just thought it would be something good. So we chose to go out there this year and now they have changed coaches but they are scheduled to play us in a three-game series next year. The Fullerton game just sort of came about separate from the tournament. Dave Serrano called me and said that he heard that we would be out there and asked if we would like to try to play. It just turned out that we were able to play them on Saturday and the schedule was all rearranged because of the weather out there but it turned out in our favor just playing one game on Friday and one Saturday with two on Sunday where we had plenty of time to fly with a red eye flight [Sunday night] and the weather was the best out of all three days on Sunday. It all just worked out and fortunately we were able to dodge the rain and get all of the games in. Making that long of a trip you want to get all of your games in."

What did you think of the team's approach at the plate this weekend, batting .293 with a .435 on base percentage?
"I don't look at the statistics too much this early. In that regard from a positive standpoint we had some contributions from everybody at one point or another. Even some of the guys that you look at, the batting average that does not look the best but you can't put any stock in that after 12 to 15 at bats. Jesse [Wierzbicki] had a big home run for us and Tom Zengel has some big at bats and Ben Bunting only had one RBI but it was the biggest one of the whole weekend. You have to be careful looking at the stats from that regard. We did some nice things but we did strike out too much. We had runners at second with no outs and third with no outs and even a couple of those were skewed because remember two balls were hit where the infield was playing in and we hit the daylights out of it right at their shortstop one time and their second baseman another. Overall I was pleased. We obviously swung the bat very well on Sunday in the double header but our young players got their feet wet and got in the box in a college game so I thought it went pretty well."

Pitching and defense have been a mantra for the success of Tar Heel baseball – how did you feel the team fared in that regard for the opening weekend?
"We thought all along that pitching was going to be the strength of our team and our bullpen depth and that certainly played out this weekend. We used a ton of guys and we mixed and matched. Tate Parrish, our freshman, came in and got the biggest strikeout of the game yesterday against their best hitter in a clutch situation in a close game and I was just so impressed with Shane Taylor, Cody Penny, Jimmy Messer, Andrew Smith, Cody Stiles, Tate Parrish, R.C. [Orlan], Bryant Gaines got a strikeout in the game yesterday. All those guys pitched exceptionally well and obviously Greg Holt - I mean he throws 4.2 innings not giving up a run and only giving up one hit and striking out two. Our bullpen was the key to the series out there and we made five errors, which I was not pleased with, and we made two errors on pickoff throws and we have to do a better job on that, but I think that pitching and defense was the reason we won four game for sure."

Were you able to take away any early impressions of the new bats in their first action this season?
"It is a little bit too early and the weather out there also was not the best place to judge. The wind was blowing a lot out there and they had a cold front coming in and it was raining so cold temperatures were unusual for the area. We hit three home runs and squared up some balls and they jumped out of the ballpark and they hit a couple of balls against the wall. I think it is a little too early to tell but there is no question a difference in the bats. How it is going to play out and the fact that we hit three home runs in four games does not tell me a whole lot but the bats still have some pop in them if you hit them in the sweet spot."

One of the things heard around this team this season is that there is great clubhouse chemistry and work ethic - can you discuss this from your perspective?
"We have said from the beginning that we really like our team with their maturity and their great work ethic. It is fun to be around them. They come down to the stadium and they really want to work and get better. Our freshmen are a really mature group. You see how many of them we put on the field the first weekend and on the mound. Position player wise we have a lot of leadership and they really like and cheer for one another. That is something that you hope your team has and it is hard to coach that but we try to recruit similar kids and other kids weed themselves out. If you don't work hard people will pass you by. So we have set a pretty high standard of that with our program and I really like that our kids get in that weight room and work and want to practice - those are kids that are fun to be around."

Can you discuss Patrick Johnson's performance against Cal State Fullerton?
"I thought Patrick, just coming off of surgery and not pitching for so long and going out there against a really good club, gave us a really good start striking out six in five and two-thirds innings. He is one of our starters who has the capability of doing that. He controls the running game and he only gave up one earned run in his five and two-thirds, but his pitch count got up a little bit and we have to watch him early in the season and then again our bullpen came in and did a good job for us. I was very pleased with Patrick with his first start and he has really, really worked hard to get back from his injury. He comes down to the stadium to do his rehab in the morning at 7:15 and he has really worked hard to get back."

How do you foresee the roles of relievers Greg Holt and Cody Penny moving forward?
"I don't think that has quite been decided yet but it is a good situation for us to be in. Greg recovers extremely well - you saw how he was able to pitch three innings on Friday then was able to come back into the game on Saturday with good velocity and throwing well. He only gave up the one hit in the ninth inning in the game at Fullerton. I think we are going to use Greg when we are in a tough spot and that tough spot could be in the fifth inning or the sixth inning. Greg is capable of throwing three innings like he did for us on Friday against Cal Poly and Cody is really, really improved from last year and stays calm on the mound and he always has had a great arm and he showed us something out there in California as well. It is nice that we have two guys in the mix and maybe another one will step up there and we can finish the game with two or three guys."

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