CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s troubles at the plate continued in Friday night’s 6-0 loss to No. 5 Louisville.
The Tar Heels (29-16, 9-13 ACC) entered this weekend’s pivotal series tied for fourth in the ACC in runs scored (317). That statistic, however, is deceiving. In league play, UNC is averaging 5.1 runs per game. In its last 16 ACC games, UNC is averaging 3.9 runs per game.
The Tar Heels have lost 12 of those 16 games, and have not only fallen out of NCAA Tournament hosting consideration, but find themselves in a battle to make the ACC Tournament field in Durham in three weeks. After Friday’s loss, UNC is currently in 12th place in the league standings, and only the top 10 teams receive an invite.
Louisville ace Brendan McKay allowed three hits and struck nine in seven innings. UNC managed four hits on the night and left seven men on base.
The Tar Heels are averaging 10.4 runs in weekday outings, but have been unable to transition that hitting output to their weekend series.
“It’s just a different animal on the weekend,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said after the loss. “You don’t face a leftie [throwing] 91-92 that can pitch to both sides of the plate and have a breaking ball like that. You just don’t see that in the middle of the week from too many teams, if any.”
With a batting lineup that boasts six underclassmen, including three freshmen, the jump from the weekday to weekend requires elevating plate performance to another level.
“Some kids are capable of doing it better than others, and some aren’t ready for it, quite honestly, right now,” Fox said.
Sophomore leftfielder Brian Miller (.307) is the only member of that group of underclassmen batting above .235 in ACC play.
The hitting strategy entering Friday’s matchup was to attack McKay’s fastball early, according to Fox. The Tar Heels’ goal was to make a good swing before getting to two strikes because at that point it becomes a game of survival.
“I don’t know how many at-bats on my lineup card I circled where we were trying to hit with two strikes,” Fox said. “That’s hard enough to do when the guy’s not good. It’s next to impossible when you let [McKay] get two strikes.”
UNC is now batting .243 in ACC play, which is good for 13th in the league. That’s not a stat Fox wants his players concerned with, though. He’s more focused on building the proper mindset.
“We talk all of the time about not looking at batting averages,” Fox said. “It’s the worst stat in sports because it’s not indicative of maybe what you did. Confidence and performance, they’re tied together. If you play well, you’re confident. It’s believing that you’re good, that you’re going to get in the box and compete. And that’s all I’m looking for right now. Just get in there and compete and try to have a good at-bat.”
The hitting woes overshadowed Zac Gallen’s strong outing (7.2 IP, 2 ER, 6 H), one that Fox labeled as one of the better performances of his junior righty’s career. Gallen kept UNC within striking distance until Louisville pulled away with four runs in the eighth and ninth innings.
UNC has lost 14 of its last 25 games dating back to March 24. A strong finish is all but required to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for a second year in a row.
“The month of April was tough,” Gallen said. “Guys were definitely down and they were bummed, but like I was telling the guys, we still have three weeks left to play. We can make a lot of noise.”