CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s 13-year streak as a NCAA Tournament staple came to an end last May due in large part to its offensive inability to manufacture runs at critical times.
Playing in June has become commonplace around Boshamer Stadium. That postseason absence has served as offseason motivation for a young and talented team looking to return to Omaha for the first time since 2013.
In 2015, UNC ranked 10th in the ACC in batting average (.264), slugging percentage (.379), hits per game (8.7) and total bases (721). The Tar Heels also ranked 12th in batting average in league play (.237).
Senior outfielder Adam Pate is the lone returning Tar Heel that hit .300 or better last season (.304), although fellow outfielder Tyler Ramirez ranks as UNC’s top returning batter after hitting .285 with 10 homeruns and 40 RBI.
“We need to be more consistent,” head coach Mike Fox said on Friday. “We need to hit more doubles. We can’t be a team of just singles hitters and at times that’s what we were last year. And when you’re facing good teams that don’t walk you and don’t make mistakes, you’ve got to string together hits.”
The Tar Heels were 9-8 in one-run games in 2015, which suggests an inability to get big hits at critical times. As such, the point of emphasis this preseason has been converting with a runner on second base with no outs and a runner on third base with less than two outs.
“We have to do a better job of getting those runs in,” Fox said. “If that’s the first inning, that’s the first inning. You can win games in the first inning.”
By not capitalizing early in games, as was often the case last season, UNC allowed the pressure to build as the late innings approached. Fox and his coaching staff have worked to simulate those situations in practice, while encouraging and rewarding players that capitalize in scrimmages.
“We did a scrimmage [on Thursday] where it was all situations where we had second and third with one out and we needed to get a guy in,” Ramirez said. “We had guys in the dugout pulling for them. It’s really remarkable how excited everybody gets when they get the job done and they get the bunt down. It was beneficial for our team to have that kind of scrimmage.”
It’s a mental hurdle more so than a talent one, according to Pate, who highlighted the vast amount of elite prospects that have played at UNC over the past decade.
“I think it’s just your approach,” Pate said. “We have a really, really talented team. I can’t say that enough. But, at the same time, it’s just big hits in big situations is what wins ball games. We didn’t have that much in the past, but it’s just capitalizing on opportunities and having confidence throughout the whole order.”
With 16 freshmen on this year’s roster, Fox is counting on several newcomers to produce in the batter’s box. Kyle Datres, who will start at second base and likely in the cleanup spot, joins catcher Cody Roberts and designated hitter Brandon Riley as freshmen in the starting lineup.
“We think we have the capability of being a better offensive team this year,” Fox said. “We’ve got some guys that can really run, for one, which helps. That helps you get some doubles sometimes. A little bit more power, I think, this year, hopefully. We’ll see how that translates, but we need to be better offensively, for sure.”
UNC opens the season against No. 11 UCLA in Los Angeles next Friday.