After a two-year hiatus from the NCAA Baseball Tournament, the North Carolina baseball team returned as the No. 2 national seed with hopes of returning to the College World Series in Omaha. The Tar Heels hosted the regional in Chapel Hill for the first time since 2013, and were the heavy favorites to move on to the Super Regionals; however, a hot Davidson Wildcats team (making their first ever appearance) had different plans.
Despite an abrupt and disappointing end to the season on Sunday night, the season was not a failure like various message board and Twitter “fans” would have you believe. A season in which the team finished with a record of 49-14, as Coastal Division champions, and didn’t lose a single ACC series is not a failure. Sure, you have every right to be upset and frustrated that they lost to a 4-seed in the regional, but the overall body of work does not classify the 2016-2017 season for Mike Fox and the UNC baseball team as a failure.
Though they may not have achieved their ultimate goal, this past season for the baseball team was one filled with a talented group of young players (don’t forget that this team only had one player on the roster that had experience playing in the NCAA Tournament), exciting finishes, and unique storylines that made it fun to follow from the beginning and one we will not soon forget.
Before the first pitch of the season was ever thrown, this team was committed and determined to return North Carolina to the upper echelon of college baseball once again. Missing the tournament the previous two years and a disappointing ACC campaign the previous year were motivating factors that fueled the fire during the offseason for the players and coaching staff.
J.B. Bukauskas came into season with the most hype of any of the Tar Heels and certainly lived up to it. Bukauskas’ strong fastball and slider has MLB scouts drooling and had college batters whiffing (111 strike outs) throughout the year. Before the tournament, he was announced as one of the finalists for Pitcher of the Year, due to his 9-0 record and 2.02 ERA.
Robert Woodard, who returned to coach at his alma mater, helped guide and lead Bukauskas and the North Carolina pitching staff to be one of the best in the ACC and/or country. Going into the season, there were question marks as to what the weekend rotation would look like for UNC. The Tar Heels found a Saturday starter in Luca Dalatri (7-3 record) that, along with Bukauskas, gave them a strong 1-2 punch on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the season that was hard to match and one of the reasons they swept every ACC series.
Tyler Baum, another freshman like Dalatri, was just as dominant for the team throughout much of the season in starting mid-week games. He finished with a 7-0 record and 2.57 ERA. Josh Hiatt, a redshirt freshman, was pretty much lights out whenever his team had a lead, and was a big part in the pitching staff’s success with his 13 saves in closing out games. Though the Tar Heels will be losing Bukauskas to the MLB Draft, Coach Woodard has to be excited with all of the depth and young talent that he will have returning next year on the mound.
Brian Miller did it all for the North Carolina baseball team with his defense in center field and in leading off for the Tar Heel offense. He led the team in batting average (.343) and was always a threat on the base paths. He led the team in stolen bases (24) and runs scored (61). He also patrolled center field and led the team with his .995 fielding percentage, with many of those being run-saving diving catches and these...
Logan Warmoth, another Tar Heel prospect likely to go in the first round of the MLB Draft, also had a lot of hype surrounding him going into the season. Much like Bukauskas, he lived up to it with his play on the field in leading the Tar Heels at shortstop. His .336 batting average and team leading 10 home runs put him as one of the finalists for the Brooks Wallace Award (awarded to the best shortstop in college baseball).
From top to bottom, the UNC lineup made it difficult for opposing pitchers to get easy outs. So, there were games where the offense would do a lot of the heavy lifting and ease the pressure on the pitching staff. For example, scoring 20 runs against South Carolina in Charlotte, scoring 10 runs in the first inning against NC State, and putting up 20 more runs in a historic victory on the road against Virginia Tech.
If UNC was ever trailing in games, their offense always gave them a chance, up to the last out, to mount a comeback. There were the three runs they scored on Davidson in the bottom of the 9th inning earlier in May that led to a victory, there was the come from behind win over Richmond, and Tyler Lynn capped off the series sweep over Clemson (in which they came from behind in all three games) with a walk-off single (one of two on the season for Lynn)...
This team navigated a tough ACC schedule and a mid-week schedule (that would give most coaches nightmares) to 49 victories. They believed in one another and picked each other up, for when one part of the team was struggling there was another to help lead the team to victory. There was also Remington the Dog that stole fans’ and players’ hearts with his uplifting story as the team’s therapy dog and unofficial mascot/best friend. These moments and stories throughout the season, along with the new ACC Network that gave fans the opportunity to watch nearly all of the games and follow along on the journey, are what made this season one to remember and this team so easy to root for.
I know some people will hang their hats on or only choose to remember how the season ended at the hands of Davidson; however, I plan to look back on how fun the season was, and how the 2016-2017 team really made me excited for the future of North Carolina baseball again.