With May comes new hopes
By Eddy Landreth
April was the cruelest month so far for the 2012 North Carolina baseball team.
The month proved to be a wasteland for Carolina’s offense, with images of Tar Heel batters’ former selves shattered by a lack of production.
“We’re living right on the edge,” coach Mike Fox said. “Let’s face it. That is just the way this team is. This team drives me crazy. There is just a small margin of error of us winning or losing, or putting ourselves in position to either score a run or not score a run. We have to make pitches and make plays.
“Every at-bat we have seems to be a crucial one,” Fox said. “That doesn’t help when guys aren’t swinging it well. That is even added pressure. So that is just the way we are. We’re a pitching and defense team. We really are.”
Fox said this just after star third baseman Colin Moran returned to the lineup. Moran missed 21 days with a broken hand. A hardwood door got in his way.
Doors can be funny that way.
“I learned from the injury not to do it again,” Moran said.
His presence gave the Tar Heels immediate hope for a turnaround offensively. In his first game back, Moran drove in both runs in a 2-0 victory against Winthrop.
One of the runs batted in from Moran came on a towering homerun over the right-field fence. He looked the way he has since becoming a freshman All-American a year ago.
“I think he is one of those guys who could roll out of bed and hit,” Fox said.
The team responded to Moran’s presence and Fox’s concern by sweeping Boston College in a three-game series this past weekend. The Tar Heels, ranked seventh in the coaches’ poll and eighth in the writers’ poll, improved to 34-14.
The next two games were a 4-2 win against UNC-Wilmington on Tuesday and a game Wednesday in Greenville against East Carolina after The Citizen’s press time. The Tar Heels defeated the Pirates 1-0 in 10 innings before the exam break in one of the most exciting games this season.
Against Boston College, Carolina collected 36 hits in three days, the most in any series this year. Some of the most important hits came after a four-and-a-half hour rain delay on Saturday in a 6-5 come-from-behind victory.
One bright spot for this team is the sudden emergence of left-handed pitcher Hobbs Johnson in the weekend rotation. Johnson was named the ACC pitcher of the week on Monday after he earned victories against Winthrop on May 2 and BC on May 6.
“If there is a story on our team this year besides Colin breaking his hand, it’s Hobbs Johnson,” Fox said. “I can say it because all the scouts know it: He’s draft eligible. He just turned 21. He’s got people interested in him at that level, and he’s pitched how many innings here – 50? I could lose that boy and he’s pitched 50 innings.
“I’m not going to because I told him I’d kill him if he signed. He’s left-handed, and he’s got a good live arm. He might be our best prospect at the next level because of that. He’s got three above-average pitches he throws for strikes. I love to see kids like that. You don’t expect it. You watch him and you say, ‘This kid is not going to make it; he’s just not going to make it.’ All of sudden he’s out there throwing for you on the weekend. It’s cool.”
Exams have ended, and it is all baseball now.
“We had a meeting the other day and said, ‘Let’s turn the page to May,’” Fox said.
“Carolina has had expectations in May. May is our month. Let’s remember that. We’ve done well in May in the past. People expect us to do well. We expect ourselves to do well. We’ll see what happens.
“This is the most fun time of the year,” Fox said. “This is when you can have some fun together. You can practice whenever you want. We can go eat as a team. We’re going to travel. We got some places to go.”
Fox and his players are hoping Omaha, Neb., will be the final trip of the year. In five of the last six years, the end has come there at the College World Series.
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