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May 3, 2012

Heels turn to May

April was the cruelest month thus far for the 2012 North Carolina baseball team.

The month became a wasteland for Carolina's offense, 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."

All hope is not lost. UNC is ranked 10th in the nation and has a 31-13 record overall, 13-8 in the ACC. The Tar Heels sit atop the Coastal Division.

UNC plays a three-game series against Boston College (20-26, 9-15), starting tonight at 6 at Boshamer Stadium.

The second game will start at 2 p.m. on Saturday and third at noon on Sunday.

April's reality lay beneath the Tar Heels' still-shinny record. Seven of Carolina's 13 losses occurred in April, a string that included a Miami sweep, a 1-2 record against Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill and losses to Liberty and UNC Greensboro.

Fox is hoping his team will prosper in May's warmth, spurred on by the return of third baseman Colin Moran and the emergence of left-handed pitcher Hobbs Johnson. Johnson completes the weekend rotation, finishing the weekends after Kent Emanuel and Benton Moss start them.

Moran, meanwhile, is one of the top hitters in the country. He proved it yet again in a 2-0 victory against Winthrop on Wednesday. He drove in both runs, with one of his hits being a high, arching home run over the right-field fence. And this was his first at-bats since breaking his hand and sitting out the previous 21 games.

He went easy with his assessment of his fellow hitters afterward.

"I think some guys are putting too much pressure on themselves," Moran said, "which is natural in baseball because it is so hard to hit.

"A lot of guys, once they start to hit -- and they will because they are good hitters -- it will be fun."

Fox's idea to hit better is for his team is to bury April and use May to regain the confidence that fueled the Tar Heels beginning to the season.

"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."

A change for the better began as April's shadows reached to the edge of May. On April 25, the Tar Heels defeated East Carolina 1-0 in 10 innings. UNC followed that with the 2-0 win against Winthrop on May 2, the night Moran returned and brought his magic with him.

Now exams are ending, and however long the season lasts, it will center on baseball.

"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."

But first they have to make sure the page continues to turn this weekend against Boston College.

Emanuel (a left-hander with 5-3 with a 1.98 earned run average) will pitch the opener tonight. Benton Moss, a freshman right-hander with a 4-2 record and a 2.13 ERA, will go on Saturday. Hobbs, a sophomore left-hander who pitched four scoreless innings against Winthrop and struck out six, will pitch the final game on Sunday.

Hobbs is 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA.

Fox is counting on solid starts from those three and winning performances from his bullpen. He can only hope the hitters will relax and go to work now that Moran is back.

"This team has got to get going to give ourselves a chance," Fox said. "You have to score some runs in the month of May. You can't win every game one or two to nothing.

"B.C. is going to come in here this weekend, and they swing it pretty good," Fox said. "We haven't played them in two years, but I know their coach. He's very aggressive. They're all free swingers. They're going to go in there and swing.

"We like our pitching, of course," Fox said. "But you can't ask your pitchers to hold every team to one or two runs. That is a lot to ask."


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