5 Players Off to Hot Starts in 2021

These Tar Heels have made quite the impression through the first third of the season

Eighteen games into Scott Forbes’ first season as North Carolina’s head baseball coach, the Tar Heels enter Tuesday’s home game against East Carolina at 12-6 overall and 8-4 in the ACC, a position that most pundits didn’t believe they’d be.

Following the losses of Aaron Sabato, Dylan Harris and Gianluca Dalatri to the professional ranks, outside expectations weren’t particularly high for this club. UNC was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division in the ACC preseason coaches poll. It also didn’t appear in any preseason rankings, and was excluded in D1Baseball’s preseason NCAA Tournament projections.

Nevertheless, expectations inside UNC's clubhouse remained as high as ever. And the Tar Heels have shown exactly why. 

Here are five players who have made strong impressions so far this season and helped alter the national perception of the team.

1) Justice Thompson

UNC had high hopes for Justice Thompson when it recruited him out of Northwest Florida State College. But until he finally got his first taste of Division I baseball, there was just no telling how his game would translate to this level.

The answer? Very, very well.

Thompson garnered national attention in his ACC debut against Virginia on Feb. 25, going 3-for-4 with a solo home run, an RBI double, a bunt single and a stolen base. He also made two incredible plays in center field, including a leaping catch against the wall that robbed Virginia’s Zack Gelof of extra bases in the ninth inning. Such plays have almost become a common occurrence.

On the season, Thompson is slashing .343/.446/.571 with a 1.017 OPS. He leads the team in runs (16), hits (24), doubles (4) and walks (11), and is tied for second in home runs (4). He’s also stolen a team-best eight bases on nine attempts.

“(Thompson’s) an unbelievable center fielder,” Forbes told The Daily Tar Heel in February. “He saved us a ton of runs. He’s fast, he’s got power. He’s a vital part of our team because he can get on base, and he can make things happen on the bases.”

2) Austin Love

Austin Love redshirted on the 2018 Omaha team before emerging as one of the ACC’s best arms in 2019. He went 8-4 with a 3.18 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 68 innings over 36 appearances that year, earning freshman All-America honors and often pitching multiple innings with ease.

Love, however, struggled during the shortened 2020 season, posting a 6.75 ERA over 14 2/3 innings. And after not being drafted last June, he returned to UNC with something to prove.

In moving into the Tar Heels’ starting rotation, Love has looked every bit the part of a bona fide Friday night ace. The right-hander started the year tossing 12 1/3 consecutive hitless innings over his first two starts. And he’s yet to slow down, going 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 37 strikeouts across five outings. Opposing hitters are hitting just .182 against him.

“Him and (pitching) coach (Bryant) Gaines, they really worked during the fall and in the offseason on fastball command,” Forbes said. “Him being a reliever, you’re going to throw more off-speed sometimes because you have runners on base and they’re sitting on the fastball. And if you’re going to be a starter in this league, you can’t pitch necessarily backwards very often.

“He has a good fastball; credit to him, it’s gotten harder. But he’s really taken the next step as far as being able to locate that fastball.”

3) Angel Zarate

Few players were as disappointed as Angel Zarate to see the 2020 season end so abruptly. After redshirting in 2018 and playing in 13 games in 2019, the left fielder established himself as one of the ACC’s best hitters during the 19-game season, leading the conference with 29 hits and tying Sabato for the team lead in RBIs (18).

A year later, Zarate keeps swinging a hot bat.

The UNC leadoff man is currently slashing .333/.434/.435 with 23 hits and 11 walks. By getting on base in all 18 games this year, he’s extended his on-base streak to 38 games, dating back to the Tar Heels’ 16-1 win over Liberty in the 2019 Chapel Hill Regional. Logan Warmoth (41 games from 2016-17) and Michael Busch (his last 38 games in 2019) are the only other UNC players with on-base streaks of 38 games or more since 1999.

As much of an impact as Zarate has had at the plate, he’s also shown great range in the outfield and has stolen three bases.

“He’s just a complete player,” Forbes said. “You see how good he is in the outfield, how accurate he is. … But offensively, he can run, so it’s hard to double him up. He can bunt to both sides of the field. And he’s a good two-strike hitter. He’s worked on driving the ball more, as well, which he’s doing now, hitting some doubles and some home runs. …

“He’s as pure a hitter as we’ve had here. He’s right up there with those guys. He’s going to be on base and he’s going to make something happen. I know he’s in the leadoff spot, but if we can do a better job at the bottom of the order, he also does a great job driving in runs.”

4) Caden O’Brien

A key member of the 2018 Omaha team, Caden O’Brien went 7-0 with a 2.62 ERA in 30 games (two starts) en route to earning freshman All-America honors. He was especially brilliant in the Tar Heels’ season-ending loss to Oregon State, the eventual national champion, striking out five batters and allowing one run on two hits over 4 1/3 innings.

Injuries, however, hampered the lefty during his sophomore season, when he posted a 5.13 ERA in 30 appearances. And although he appeared to take some steps toward returning to form before last season ended, walks were an issue, as he surrendered 13 in as many innings.

So far this year, he looks more like the pitcher of old.

In throwing 12 2/3 innings over his first six appearances, O’Brien has recorded a 1.42 ERA and .95 WHIP. He’s walked three batters while striking out 14. And even when his command hasn’t quite been there, he’s worked out of trouble, as was the case Sunday at Boston College, when he pitched 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.

“What Caden has more than anything is he’s just tough,” Forbes said. “He’s ultra competitive. He’s got to slow down sometimes. He’s breathing out there like a bull, but he’s learning to harness that a little bit more. He does everything well. The kid is almost a 4.0 student, a phenomenal story of being here at UNC. And we tell our guys all the time, when you do stuff like that and you’re that good of a leader and teammate, you’re going to have some success. It’s just a matter of when it happens.

“He’s one of the hardest workers and he’s older, and that helps our pitching staff. We’ve got some injuries just like everybody else. We’re dinged up here and there. But we can’t ever get like, ‘We don’t have this guy, we don’t have that guy.’ Somebody has got to step in there and get it done. Caden has done that.”

5) Tomas Frick

As was always the case in Mike Fox’s 22 seasons as head coach, the Tar Heels continue to hang their hats on pitching and defense. That starts behind the plate, at perhaps their deepest position.

Catchers Eric Grintz and Will Stewart started eight and 10 games, respectively, last season, and showed signs of potential at the plate and in the field. Both are key pieces on this year’s team. But they’ve mostly come off the bench or been used at designated hitter, with freshman Tomas Frick receiving 16 starts at catcher.

Frick has shown some pop in his bat, especially as of late; he’s 8-for-23 with three doubles over the last six games. His defense, though, is his calling card.

Showing a strong and accurate arm, Frick has thrown out six of 13 potential basestealers. Forbes said he also wins the framing battle, according to UNC’s analytics team. That doesn’t even take into account the athleticism he displayed Sunday, when he ranged to his right to snag a strong throw from right fielder Caleb Roberts, dove back over the plate and tagged out the Boston College runner trying to score the go-ahead run.

“He’s as advanced defensively as the ones we’ve had, the (Jacob) Stallings, the (Chris) Iannettas,” Forbes said. “That’s how good he is. … We’re going to catch the best defender always, and Tomas has shown right now that’s what he is.”