Odd Beginnings

CARY, N.C. – No. 2 North Carolina lost its pseudo-home opener, 8-6, to Old Dominion on Tuesday, and if this 10th–inning defeat serves as any indication as to what UNC can expect in Cary this season, the Tar Heels may use their free time to assist the Boshamer Stadium construction workers in that renovation project.

"I'm going to be interested to see you write this game up," head coach Mike Fox said in the moments following his team's first loss of the season. "You guys are going to be up all night if you're going to try to recap this one, because I can't even remember the first seven innings."

After sophomore Tim Fedroff drilled a two-run homer over the USA Baseball National Training Complex's right field wall to give North Carolina (3-1) a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh, things fell apart for the Tar Heels.

Sophomore Ryan Graepel started the downfall with back-to-back errors to load the bases from his shortstop position in the eighth, and the Monarchs' Bryan Cipolla capitalized by knocking in two of his eventual six RBI's on the night. Graepel also had two errors during the Florida Atlantic series last weekend.

"Ryan Graepel is one of the best defensive players that I've ever coached," Fox said. "What's happened to him to start the season is mind-boggling to me. And now it's confidence, so we'll have to pick him back up."

But the Greenville, N.C. native was not alone in his struggles on Tuesday night. In fact, there was plenty of evidence earlier in the evening to suggest that this home-away-from-home start to the season was scripted by the original Twilight Zone writers.

Senior Rob Wooten, UNC's ace in the bullpen, was struck in his throwing arm by a first-inning foul ball while standing in the dugout. Freshman closer Nate Striz intentionally walked a batter to load the bases to create force outs around the diamond with one down, and then proceeded to walk the next two hitters on pitches to give the Monarchs a 4-3 lead in the 8th.

"The wheels just completely came off," Fox said. "It's almost kind of a helpless feeling. Thank goodness it's only the fourth game of the year. If they're all like this, I'll be dead by the end of the season, that's for sure."

The Tar Heels committed four costly errors on the night, but ironically, the two biggest miscues did not appear in the error column on the score sheet. With Wooten unavailable to pitch, junior catcher Tim Federowicz moved to the mound while senior third basemen Chad Flack moved behind the plate.

A strikeout with two outs should have sent the Heels to the bottom of the 10th in a tie game, but Flack mishandled the third strike and ODU's Max Most made it safely to first base to load the bases. Cipolla stepped to the plate and hit a fly to left field, but newly-inserted outfielder Kendric Burney fell down while attempting to catch the ball, and a routine pop-up ended up being a three-run double. In all, seven of Old Dominion's eight runs were unearned.

There were questions earlier in the day as to whether the game would even take place or not. Inclement weather pushed the initial start time of 3:30 p.m. back to 5 p.m., and heavy rains emptied the stands in the late innings.

"If you start thinking about the whole thing today – if we had played this game at 4 p.m., would we have won? I'll throw that out as a cosmic question to you," Fox said. "This is a crazy day. It started out crazy at 7 a.m.… We didn't play well. If you give up seven unearned runs, you're never going to win."

Part of North Carolina's problems stemmed from its youth – 12 underclassmen took the field for the Tar Heels – while another part resided in the new territory that will serve as home field this spring.

Practicing on a new surface is one thing – playing an actual game on a new field is totally different.

"We played on a slick surface today," Federowicz said. "That's really not an excuse, but it's the first time we've been out here and it's a little quicker than where we played down in Florida."

The do-everything junior that will one day possibly make a living behind the plate also found that it will take some time adjusting to playing under the lights at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.

"The light is a little bad behind the plate, and it just creates a shadow in between my legs when I giving the signs," Federowicz said. "So a couple of the guys had some trouble in picking up the signs a little bit."

And even the most normal situations in baseball – such as watching the game from the dugout – will have to be looked at with more scrutiny following Wooten's freak injury in the opening minutes.

"It's a wonder that doesn't happen more," Fox said. "We're all kind of right on top of home plate. You're supposed to stay alert. There wasn't anything you could do. I tell you, I kept my head down below that fence when the lefties came up, because you just don't ever know. Fortunately, it didn't hit him in the head or anything."

Change is difficult, but it is also inevitable. The Tar Heels will overcome the oddities that plagued them on Tuesday night, the youngsters in the bullpen will mature and develop and Fox will most assuredly be alive when this season ends.

But possibly the most bizarre visual of the evening will be the toughest for North Carolina to overcome this spring – when the game ended with the rain coming down, it was tough to pick out which bus the Tar Heels were boarding for that 30-minute ride back home.

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