CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – With the biggest series of the season against Clemson on tap this weekend, and a potential route to Omaha through Chapel Hill, North Carolina baseball coach Mike Fox needs his boys to turn into men, especially with regard to his young pitching staff.
While junior ace J.B. Bukauskas has led the charge this season with a 7-0 record and 1.53 ERA, the real story for the Tar Heels’ pitching staff has been the influx of freshman pitchers into the rotation. The standout has been Wall Township, N.J. product Luca Dalatri -- the 6-foot-6 hurler has posted a 5-2 record with a 2.22 ERA while averaging almost seven innings pitched per start.
Dalatri’s immediate impact has given Fox and his entire team a sense of relief every time he takes the mound.
“When Luca is out there everybody is confident,” Fox said.
But with the Tar Heels (33-9) well over 40 games deep into the season, it will take much more than just one first-year ace if UNC has hopes of playing deep into June. Redshirt freshman Josh Hiatt has solidified the Tar Heels’ closer role, notching 12 saves with a 1.39 ERA in 23 appearances.
True freshman Tyler Baum has impressed this season on Tuesday nights, as he’s recorded four wins without a loss in nine starts. The Ocoee, Fla. native’s undefeated record has also been the product of some stellar run support, as the Tar Heels average 8.6 runs per game when Baum starts.
Even with Baum’s flawless record, Fox still sees holes in the freshman’s game.
“Tyler, he’s just been okay,” Fox said. “His command early when he started the first couple of games for us is much better than it is right now. He’s got to get that back.”
The lack of certainty in Baum’s game has shown in his usage, as he’s only averaging 3.8 innings pitched over his 10 appearances this season.
“He’s going to get there,” Fox said. “He’s a freshman and you have some ups and downs. I don’t want it to be a mental thing with those guys, I want it to be a physical thing. If it’s a physical thing he can work on it in the bullpen. Don’t feel sorry for yourself; we’ve given you the ball as a freshman to pitch. Go out and and pitch with some intensity and confidence.”
As the regular season enters its final month, every game is a step up in importance for the Tar Heels.
“The prize and everything gets bigger,” Fox said. “Everything gets magnified, series wins and pressure, that’s when you hope those guys have grown up, embraced that pressure, and are ready for that situation.”
With every inning gaining importance, there comes a reliance on the other youth in the pitching staff, outside of Baum and Dalatri, as well. Names like Bo Weiss and Zach Attianese will soon hear their names called more frequently and be asked to come in relief in big moments. Attianese’s presence may be paramount, considering he’s the staff’s lone lefty.
For the two freshman relievers, their failure to secure a higher number of innings pitched in the beginning of the season will need to be forgotten.
“They are all good pitchers, but sometimes it doesn’t work out,” junior outfielder Brian Miller said. “They might not get the spot they want, but they’re always ready to go.”
The fate of the Tar Heels’ season may lie in the arms of a few 18-year olds, and Fox won’t feign a complete feeling of comfort. And if want to know his confidence level in his young staff heading into three games against Clemson starting Friday, you’ll have to wait.
“Ask me after this weekend.”