Editor’s Note: This article was written by the newest member of the Keeping It Heel team, Clint Hannah.
North Carolina beat Coastal Carolina 5-1 on Tuesday night. The top-ranked Tar Heels improved to 35-2 overall and boast an equally impressive 15-2 record in conference play. The Heels narrowly edge out two SEC teams for the best record in baseball as #2 Vanderbilt sits at 33-4 and #3 LSU is 35-3. UNC makes a pretty solid case that it’s the best team in baseball, but it opens up another question: might this be the best team in Carolina history?
In making a comparison, the previous best team in Carolina baseball should be crowned. Just looking at the last ten years, UNC puts five teams in contention, the five College World Series teams: 2006-09, and 2011. Looking first at win totals, we can trim five to three as the 2006, 2007, and 2008 teams all won more than 50 games while the other two years narrowly missed the mark, as both years the Heels won 48 games.
The 2008 Heels were an incredible team, winning 52 games, led by current Seattle Mariner Dustin Ackley who hit .436 in his sophomore season in route to All-America honors. Ackley was a semi-finalist for the Golden Spikes Award that season, presented to the nation’s top amateur baseball player. Unfortunately for Ackley and the Heels, awards weren’t meant to be this season. The Heels finished third in Omaha, and because of an incredibly strong Miami squad, didn’t even finish with the best record in the ACC Coastal. Thus, three was down to two.
It makes sense that the 2006 and 2007 teams would be discussed together, as these seasons were nearly identical. A 54-15 record in 2006 and a 56-14 record in 2007 would be similar enough, but both seasons ended in the College World Series Championship to the Oregon State Beavers. The 2006 season story was pitching as current Boston Red Sox reliever Andrew Miller put up incredible numbers in route to winning the Roger Clemens Award as the nation’s top collegiate pitcher. Daniel Bard, the first round selection that until last season was a force in the Red Sox bullpen, was only the second best pitcher on the team.
The 2007 team was built around hitting. Dustin Ackley led the charge becoming the national freshman of the year, but it wasn’t a one-man show. Chad Flack, the UNC all-time hits leader, was a senior that year, and from top to bottom, there wasn’t an easy out in the lineup. And though Miller and Bard were drafted prior to this year, Robert Woodard led a solid pitching staff. Woodard finished his collegiate career that season, finishing a perfect 22-0 at Boshamer Stadium.
Comparing these two teams is tough, but the slight edge has to go to 2006. As painful as it might be for some Tar Heel fans to remember, Carolina won the first of the three games in the championship series and had the tying run on third base in the 9th of game three. A team can’t come much closer to winning a championship than the 2006 Tar Heels without actually, you know, winning one.
So will 2013 be better than 2006? Well, an initial look at the record and one might suggest that as long as the Heels keep winning, it’s a certainty. Carolina only has to go 20-12 down the stretch to have a better record, but baseball is rarely about win-loss records. Ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners team that set an America League record at 116-46 but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Ask Atlanta Braves fans from 1991-2005. The team won 14 division titles but only a single World Series. Baseball, despite having the longest season, is a strange sport where a hot pitcher or cool bats can let any team beat any other team. So this warrants a deeper look.
Sabermetrics and new age statistics are all the rage in baseball analysis these days, but even looking at some basic statistics shows the strength of both of these teams. The 2006 team was known for its dominating pitching, and this year’s team is third in the country with an ERA of 2.16. Both teams are solid with the bat as well as the 2006 team hit .321 in their 30 conference games, and through the 37 games of this season, the Heels are hitting .319. This is good enough to rank 8th in all of NCAA Division 1. Obviously in order to make a perfect statistical comparison, one would need to dive much deeper into comparative strengths of schedule, margin of victories, and other elements that would allow two teams separate by a few years to be judged objectively. Suffice it to say, the 2013 Tar Heels are going to warrant a serious discussion for best Carolina team ever.
What would be the easiest way for the Heels to end the argument? Win the College World Series. The 2006 UNC baseball team was one of the best college baseball teams ever to not win a championship. But do you know what is better than being the best team ever not to win? Being any team to win. Heels fans will have to wait and hope that they’re witnessing a historically good team.