GOHEELS EXCLUSIVE: ONE SWING AWAY
Article Published by: goheels.com
By Pat James, GoHeels.com
Perhaps no coach in the country, outside the North Carolina coaching staff, knows the Tar Heels better than Liberty head coach Scott Jackson.
For eight seasons, Jackson served as a UNC assistant coach, helping Carolina reach the College World Series three times. He then took his current position in the summer of 2016. Currently in his third season with the Flames, he’s led the program to one of its best seasons ever, coaching Liberty to 43 wins and its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.
Entering this weekend’s Chapel Hill Regional, in which the Flames are the No. 3 seed, Jackson’s return to Chapel Hill was among the biggest storylines. He and Mike Fox both spoke about their strong relationship all week. Jackson’s bond with UNC’s players, many of whom he recruited for Carolina, wasn’t mentioned as much, though.
But after the Tar Heels’ 16-1 win over the Flames on Saturday, Jackson couldn’t help but notice the irony of the situation.
“That’s a good lineup. I say that in a frustrated way, but I recruited a lot of those kids,” Jackson said, laughing. “So you know the ability of them. … When you’re hosting a regional, you’ve got a team that has some depth. And they do. It’s a long lineup. And it’s a frustrating lineup.
“They knew what they were looking for, and they made us throw it over the plate. And doggone, when we did, they made us pay.”
As has been the case all season, most of Carolina’s damage came via the long ball. UNC scored nine runs off five home runs, the Tar Heels’ most in any NCAA Tournament game during Fox’s 21-season tenure. Combined with their two homers against UNCW on Friday, they’ve hit seven in this regional. Those are already their most in a regional since 2006.
Carolina has now clubbed 75 home runs this season. The 2002 and 2006 teams, which tallied 108 and 83 homers, respectively, are the only UNC squads that have hit more under Fox.
Few teams in the country boast a tandem as powerful as Michael Busch and Aaron Sabato. Both players hit their 16th home run on Saturday, making them the first duo to reach that mark in the same season under Fox. As dangerous as they are, they aren’t the only Tar Heels who opposing pitchers have to be careful with. Six other Tar Heels have also hit five or more homers.
But what makes facing Carolina’s hitters that much more difficult is that they aren’t simply swinging for the fences. In fact, this UNC team is just as, if not more, patient than any at the plate, as evidenced by its school-record 381 walks. The 2013 team held the previous record of 369.
“We love our plate discipline,” Fox said. “We love how our kids look at the ball. We rave to them all the time and I think that helps them get into good counts sometimes and then they get a pitch that they can drive because they don’t want to walk them.”
That said, is there comfort in knowing any player in the lineup can homer at any time?
“Oh, yes,” Fox said. “I think our players sense that. We’ve had teams here where we can’t get back into games sometimes with one swing or it’s one guy – we’ve got to get around to one or two guys. That’s really not the case here. You always feel like you’re a walk and one swing away from going from 2-0 to 4-0.”
Although the final score didn’t reflect it, that’s exactly the situation the Tar Heels found themselves in just over halfway through Sunday’s game.
Carolina led Liberty 2-0 through five innings, thanks to a solo home run and an RBI single by Dylan Harris. The rest of UNC’s lineup hadn’t found the same sort of success against Flames ace Andrew McInvale, though, having gone a combined 2-for-16 against him.
But in the sixth inning, the Tar Heels began to seize control.
Ike Freeman opened the frame with a six-pitch walk. Ashton McGee then stepped into the box and got ahead 2-0 in his count. At that point, Liberty pitching coach Bryant Gaines, a former Carolina player and assistant coach, visited the mound, looking to settle McInvale down. But McGee launched the next pitch over the right-field wall, pushing UNC’s lead to 4-0.
“The at-bat before, I swung at the first pitch and it was a changeup and I was out in front,” said McGee, who’s hit five of his six homers since April 23. “So going into that at-bat, I just made sure to stay through the next pitch that I got. On 2-0, I sat on the changeup and I just got it up in the air and stayed through it.”
And the Tar Heels never looked back.
Busch hit a two-run home run in the seventh inning, extending his on-base streak to 34 games. Two pitches later, Sabato lined a breaking ball over the left-field wall, breaking Chad Flack’s record for the most home runs by a Carolina freshman. Not to be outdone, Brandon Martorano completed the home-run barrage with a three-run blast moments later.
By the end of the inning, UNC led 10-0. The three home runs were the Tar Heels’ most in a frame since hitting three in the seventh inning against Virginia Tech on May 14, 2017.
“For us as a team, we always believe that we’re just one swing away,” Martorano said. “We’re one big swing away in every ball game, but Coach Jackson and Coach Gaines, they have an unbelievable team over there. So we knew that four (runs) certainly weren’t going to be enough, regardless of who was on the mound for us.
“We knew we had to keep the foot on the gas pedal and keep going because – especially in these regional games, this being our third time now – we know nothing is guaranteed.”
Carolina tacked on six more runs in the final two innings and eventually won by 15, matching UNC’s largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game.
The Tar Heels couldn’t have pulled off the win without solid pitching and defense. A septet of Carolina pitchers – Will Sandy, Hansen Butler, Austin Love, Connor Ollio, Josh Dotson, Andrew Grogan and Kyle Blendinger – tossed a six-hitter. Behind them, UNC turned a season-high three double plays and Harris made a long running catch in left-center field to save at least one run.
The long ball, however, again proved pivotal for the Tar Heels. And largely because of it, they’ll have a chance to clinch a spot in the super regionals on Sunday.
“We’re one win away from taking the next step (to Omaha),” Fox said. “This is just one game. It’s baseball. The tables can turn quickly. And we’ve got a very smart, mature team that understands that.”
About Scott Livengood
Scott Livengood is the owner and CEO of Dewey’s Bakery, Inc., a commercial wholesale bakery with a respected national brand of ultra premium cookies and crackers.
Previously, Scott worked at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts for 27 years, starting as a trainee in 1977. He was appointed President of the company in 1992, then CEO and Chairman of the Board.
Scott has served on numerous boards including the Carter Center, the Calloway School of Business and the Babcock School of Management, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, and the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.
He started a new business, StoryWork International, in 2016 with Richard Stone. The signature achievement to date is LivingStories, a story-based program for improved patient experiences and outcomes in partnership with Novant Health.