Walt Whitman in April 1889 had this to say about baseball:
Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic! ... Well—it’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.
It seems that late each winter, baseball fans find reasons to celebrate the cooling of the hot stove and the warming of the weather. Just as spring made a grand and welcomed appearance this week in North Carolina, baseball fans will emerge from their winter slumbers to greet a new season of America’s pastime with the same enthusiasm.
For some, it is a distraction from the turbulent every day. Others bask in the glory of summers gone by, rekindling those memories of childhoods spent on dirty and dusty diamonds.
For the North Carolina Tar Heels, it is about atonement for a season that ended all too soon.
In Arizona and Florida, Grapefruit and Cactus League play officially begins today, while the Tar Heels and other collegiate teams throughout the country started their season this past weekend.
The 2017 team ended the regular season fifth in RPI, and ranked in the top five in all the major polls. After their dramatic collapse as the no. 2 seed and host of the Chapel Hill Regional, Carolina finished between 11 and 15 in the final season polls. The Diamond Heels started this season with the same high expectations as last year. In a preseason vote of the ACC’s coaches, Carolina was picked to win the Coastal Division, and second-favorite for conference champions.
Sophomore righty Gianluca Dalatri was named to the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award watch list. This comes a season after being named a consensus freshman All-American. The Golden Spikes Award is given to the top amateur baseball player in the United States. Sophomore closer Josh Hiatt was named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) Stopper of the Year Award. Hiatt was named a first-team All-American from Baseball America and the NCBWA, and was a consensus freshman All-American.
Most preseason polls had the Tar Heels at no. 6 or 7, and after the first weekend Carolina is holding steady in the polls. However, after their weekend series and weekday games, expect Carolina to drop significantly in the polls.
Here are the results from the first games of the season:
UNC Baseball Results - Week 1
|2/16/2018||at South Florida||L 3-4||0-1|
|2/17/2018||at South Florida||W 12-5||1-1|
|2/18/2018||at South Florida||W 9-8||2-1|
|2/20/2018||vs. UNCW||L 4-5||2-2|
|2/21/2018||vs. St. John's||L 2-5||2-3|
Dalatri earned the start for the Tar Heels in Tampa in the season opener against South Florida. However, it was not the start imagined by the talented right-hander. He allowed three earned runs in almost four innings of work.
The Tar Heels could not crack USF starter Shane McClanahan in six innings. This changed once relief came in for the Bulls in the seventh. With two on and two out, first baseman Michael Busch took it deep to right-center to narrow the USF lead to 4-3.
Yet, the Carolina rally fell short and the Tar Heels dropped the season opener by that 4-3 score.
In the second game of the season-opening series, the Tar Heel offense exploded for six runs in the top of the first, and that would be the difference in the game. Catcher Brandon Martorano ended the scoring in the first with a three-run homerun.
UNC would double its first inning output by totaling 12 runs. Second baseman Zack Gahagan led the way, going 4-5 with three RBIs and a run scored.
Sophomore righty Tyler Baum earned the win in five innings. He recorded a career-high 10 strikeouts.
Flashes of last year’s late game dramatics returned in the final game of the series. Senior righty Brett Daniels earned the start and allowed just one run in four innings. Closer Josh Hiatt came in for some middle relief after Daniels hit and walked batters in the fifth. After two innings of work, Hiatt was replaced in the bottom of the seventh with the Tar Heels in control with a 8-1 lead.
The wheels came off during the seventh, with the USF offense exploding for seven runs to tie the ballgame. The Bulls went through four Tar Heel pitchers in that inning. Neither team scored in regulation, and it would take free baseball to decide the series. Ike Freeman, coming in at shortstop, hit a leadoff homer in the top of the tenth to push Carolina ahead 9-8. Sophomore righty Austin Bergner retired three Bulls in the bottom of the tenth to complete three scoreless innings of work and earn the series win for the Tar Heels.
In the home opener versus UNC Wilmington, the Tar Heels jumped out to an early 3-0 lead off the bat of Busch. The first baseman hit a three-run shot to right in the bottom of the first. Freshman left-hander Caden O’Brien had a good start to his collegiate career with seven strikeouts and only one earned run in 4 1⁄3 innings.
Unfortunately, the bullpen allowed the opponent to come back into the game. A three-run shot in the sixth pushed the Seahawks ahead 4-3. In the seventh, third baseman Kyle Datres hit a RBI double to knot the game at four.
A leadoff double in the top of the ninth set up the winning run for UNCW. Two batters later, the Seahawks scored on a RBI single. The Tar Heels left the equalizing run stranded in the ninth and dropped their home opener 5-4.
The undefeated and no. 23 St. John’s Red Storm came to Chapel Hill Wednesday night. The game was scoreless through three. The teams each scored two runs in the fourth. Dylan Enwiller, a junior who transferred from Yavapai College, hit a RBI single to left, and a wild throw home allowed catcher Cody Roberts to score as well.
The difference in the game came in the top of the seventh. St. John’s hit a leadoff solo shot to move ahead 3-2. Through some defensive miscues, the Red Storm added two more runs. In the eight and ninth, Carolina left two runners on base in each inning and lost 5-2.
The Tar Heels play East Carolina this weekend in three different venues: Greenville, Durham, and Chapel Hill. Carolina leads the all time series 55-27, including two wins last season.
Dalatru is expected to make the start tonight, with Baum starting on the mound tomorrow night.
Busch is leading the ACC with 10 RBIs, and Roberts is batting .294 to lead the Tar Heels.
Here is Carolina’s upcoming schedule:
UNC Baseball Upcoming Schedule
|2/23/2018||5:00 PM||at East Carolina|
|2/24/2018||6:00 PM||vs. East Carolina (Durham Bulls Atheltic Park)|
|2/25/2018||1:00 PM||vs. East Carolina|
|2/27/2018||3:00 PM||vs. High Point|