Luke DeCock

Tar Heels prepare to host Auburn, dodge storms in super regional

Mike Fox on North Carolina vs Auburn : ‘They’re obviously a tremendous challenge for us’

North Carolina coach Mike Fox addresses the media ahead of the Tar Heels' NCAA Super Regional against Auburn
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North Carolina coach Mike Fox addresses the media ahead of the Tar Heels' NCAA Super Regional against Auburn

Auburn got its practice in, just in time as it turned out. By the time North Carolina was supposed to take the field Friday, it was pouring. Based on the forecast, not for the last time this weekend.

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North Carolina pitcher Joey Lancellotti (31) sprints to the dugout to escape a downpour on Friday June 7, 2019 at Bosahmer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Tar Heels were forced to move their practice for their NCAA Super Regional game against Auburn indoors after heavy rain moved into the area on Friday afternoon. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

It could be argued the Tar Heels got more out of their field time than the Tigers, because there may actually be more marginal utility in practicing waiting out a rain delay than honing skills that should be pretty finely honed at this late point in the season.

This NCAA super regional figures to be a wet one, not an uncommon set of circumstances at this time of year, when rain delays and curious NCAA start-stop decisions are as much a part of the college baseball postseason as sacrifice bunts and pitching changes on 3-1 counts. East Carolina and N.C. State and Campbell went through it last week, when it took two days to play the first two games of the regional in Greenville, and everyone has gone through it at one point or another. (The Wolfpack has had a particularly bad time of it in the super regionals it has hosted.)

“It’s mother nature,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “The good news for me is I don’t have to make any of the decisions. That’s the difficult part when you have this kind of weekend coming up weatherwise, trying to make the decisions about when to start the game. That’s out of my hands now, so we’ll just do the best we can with it.”

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North Carolina’s Ike Freeman (8) takes a turn in the batting cage during the Tar Heels’ practice on Friday June 7, 2019 at Bosahmer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Tar Heels were forced to move their practice for their NCAA Super Regional against Auburn indoors after heavy rain moved into the area on Friday afternoon. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

It’s partly the unfortunate reality of trying to do anything outside in North Carolina this time of year and partly bad luck; the Tar Heels enjoyed four splendid weekdays only for the storms to roll in now. The forecast is for more of this as two fronts collide and a low-pressure system sits overhead, producing “multiple rounds of precipitation” through the weekend, per the National Weather Service.

Baseball weather. At least in June in North Carolina.

“There are some challenges,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. “You need to have a plan of attack if the weather comes in.”

And it will.

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The rain won’t decide who moves on to the College World Series, but it will be a giant pain in the butt. The NCAA has done what it can to help, assigning early time slots to all three games, but it’s going to be a long, wet, intermittent, helter-skelter 18- or 27-inning slog either way.

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North Carolina’s Danny Serretti (1) talks with teammates Ike Freeman, Ashton McGee and Aaron Sabato as they wait their turns for batting practice at the Tar Heels indoor batting cage on Friday June 7, 2019 at Bosahmer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Tar Heels were forced to move their practice for their NCAA Super Regional game against Auburn indoors after heavy rain moved into the area on Friday afternoon. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

This will present some hurdles, given the likelihood of delays in what will almost certainly have the feel of a tripleheader spread over three or four days, playing when able, huddling under cover with a copy of “Mayan Wisdom Made Easy” when not.

Fox talked Friday about the inevitability of being put in difficult positions with regard to pitchers, trying to manage the calculus of how many pitches and how long the delay when deciding whether to send a guy back to the mound after a weather delay or make a change.

“It’s a tough one, sometimes,” Fox said. “At some point, you reach a time limit when it’s going to happen no matter what. We’ve had a few situations here where we have sent a pitcher back in back, let him throw some pitches, simulate a few innings, but obviously at some point it’s not in anyone’s best interest to bring him back.”

It’s nothing new at this time of year, but these are still the kind of circumstances that will put a physical strain on bullpens and a mental strain on everyone else.

At least the Tar Heels got some practice at it Friday.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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