Defensive Dividends

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While North Carolina enters the 2011 College World Series with the highest earned run average of any of the eight participants, the Tar Heels have made up for the difference with one of the nation's top defenses.

With North Carolina clinging to a 1-0 lead in the top of the seventh inning on Friday night, Stanford head coach Mark Marquess pinch hit southpaw Dave Giuliani for Jake Stewart. UNC ace Patrick Johnson had just walked Kenny Diekroeger on his 114th pitch to give the Cardinal a rare scoring opportunity with runners on first and second with two outs in the first game of the Chapel Hill Super Regional.

The decision looked as though it would pay off as Giuliani blasted his 0-1 pitch into the right-center field gap. A double to the wall could have possibly plated both runs and given Stanford a 2-1 lead at the stretch.

Center fielder Ben Bunting told reporters after the game that when Giuliani first made contact, he thought the ball had a chance to clear the wall. Bunting tore off toward the gap as the ball hung up in the air and the senior made a dramatic running grab at the warning track to extend Johnson's scoreless inning streak for one more frame.

Earlier in the game, shortstop Levi Michael set the defensive tone in the third inning with a diving grab and throw to first base that was a split-second short of netting an improbable out. If anything, that play notified the Cardinal that any offensive production would have to be earned. The Tar Heels were not offering any handouts.

When Johnson was asked about his dominant performance on Friday – 7.2 IP, 5 hits, ER – he replied by saying, "Great defense behind me."

That has been the case all season long. Whether it's Bunting heroics in the outfield, Michael's theatrics in the infield or Jacob Stallings' laser-like throws from behind the plate – the junior ranks third nationally with 31 batters throw out stealing – UNC's defense has been suffocating from all angles.

"Our pitchers trust our defense and that helps them," UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters on Wednesday. "That has to help them, I would think."

That defensive approach is by design.

"We put a great deal of emphasis on [defense] from the very beginning, because that's what we do," Fox said. "That's one of our goals here. We didn't know what kind of offensive team we were going to have with the new bats, so that put even more emphasis on it, like, ‘There may not be a lot of runs scored in college baseball, much less with our team.' Not to try to discredit them in any way, but we knew it was important for us to play good defense.

"So we emphasis it a lot and our players bought into it and we've played pretty well."

When the Tar Heels first take the practice field, they are conditioned to focus their energy on field balls and working through routine plays.

"Coach Fox is huge on good defense and good defensive habits," Bunting said. "When we come out here every day, the first thing we do is practice our defense and our small fundamental things. I feel like that translates into the game for us."

North Carolina currently boasts a school-record fielding percentage of .979, a full sixth thousandths of a decimal point behind nationally-leading San Francisco's .985. The current school record is a .974 fielding percentage set by the '07 squad. Fox's emphasis on defense has paid off in recent years as UNC has posted a .970 mark or better in each of the past five seasons.

The Tar Heels have been even better in NCAA Tournament play this June, posting a .988 mark in five games while committing just two errors.

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