Love Locks Louisville Down, Sets Tone in Crucial Series Sweep

The Tar Heels' ace stepped up when needed

Four days prior to taking the mound for North Carolina’s season opener against James Madison, Austin Love sat inside the coaches’ meeting room at Boshamer Stadium, fielding questions from reporters as part of the team’s virtual media day.

Despite being among the Tar Heels’ best pitchers the previous two seasons, Love had only done a handful of interviews, as is typically the case with relievers. But with the redshirt sophomore set to enter the season as the Friday starter, there he was, answering questions ranging from how he stayed sharp during the COVID-19 shutdown to the transition from Mike Fox to Scott Forbes.

No question, however, elicited a more revealing response from the quiet righty than one about his new role.

“I’ve always wanted to start,” Love said. “If you come to Carolina, you want to be the Friday guy. That’s what everybody dreams of.”

Over the last three months, during which he’s established himself as a bona fide ace and a likely early-round pick in July’s MLB Draft, the Salisbury, North Carolina native has reiterated time and time again how much it means to pitch on Fridays for his state’s flagship school. But at no point did UNC need him to embrace that more than this past Friday.

Coming off a 3-2 defeat to UNCG, the Tar Heels found themselves with their backs against the wall, needing to win at least four of their last six ACC games to make the NCAA Tournament. That seemed daunting enough without considering their next opponent: No. 11 Louisville. Love, however, proved up to the task of going toe-to-toe with the Cardinals and their heralded offense, among the most multi-faceted in college baseball.

When it was all said and done, Love more than delivered, striking out nine batters in the first complete game by a UNC pitcher in three years and leading his team to a 5-1 win that set the tone for a momentous series sweep.

“This past week, we’ve had a couple team meetings, just saying we need to get it going,” Love said. “We know we have the pitching staff to do it, we have the hitters to do it, we just need to all come together. (Friday), we definitely had that come together. We had some big-time hits, and obviously I pitched pretty well.”

That’s quite the understatement.

From the moment he took the mound until his teammates swarmed him after the final out, Love dominated. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound workhouse allowed just one run on six hits and two walks while using a fastball that mainly sat between 92-95 mph, a mid-80s slider that he commanded brilliantly and his firm changeup. Batterymate Tomas Frick said the game plan entering Friday was to get ahead early in the count and attack late with the fastball. Love executed that nearly to perfection, throwing first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 34 batters he faced and recording five strikeouts with his heater.

The result was the first complete game by a Tar Heel since Rodney Hutchison threw one against North Carolina A&T on March 13, 2018. It was also the first against an ACC opponent since Zac Gallen shut out Virginia Tech on April 8, 2016.

“In warmups in the bullpen, I felt like I had all of my pitches,” Love said. “I could locate them and throw them down when I wanted to. So I felt pretty good the whole time."

As sensational as he was, his outing wasn’t without some adversity. 

After retiring the first seven batters he faced, Louisville loaded the bases with two outs in the third inning, bringing Alex Binelas to the plate. The Cardinals’ leader in home runs and RBIs, the first baseman is considered the No. 33 prospect in the 2021 MLB Draft by Baseball America. But that didn’t faze Love, who blew a 97 mph fastball by the slugger to escape the jam with an inning-ending strikeout.

Louisville eventually scratched across a run when catcher Henry Davis – the No. 5 prospect in the upcoming draft, per Baseball America – led off the sixth with a homer. The blast, which went 450 feet according to UNC’s analytics team, was the type of hit that could’ve been a momentum killer. Love, however, buckled down even more. He got three quick outs to end the sixth before striking out the side in the seventh, at which point the complete game started seeming probable.

“When he struck out the side,” Frick said, “I even took a peek at the pitch count and was like, ‘Ooh, he might do it.’”

Given how Love is built and his propensity to eat innings – Friday was the fifth time this season he’s gone seven or more – Forbes thought he would eventually throw a complete game. It just so happened to come when the Tar Heels needed it most, on the heels of six losses in seven games.

“That’s what you need when you’ve had some adversity,” Forbes said. “You need somebody at some point just to say, ‘OK, guys, I’m going to put you on my back and throw a complete game.’

“He was up there watching video with (pitching) coach (Bryant) Gaines (Friday morning), and Coach Gaines and I had seen a quote by (a former pitcher) who used to tell the bullpen on days he was starting, ‘Hey, don’t y’all worry about today; I’m going to stay down here.’ So we were messing with Austin like, ‘Hey, tell the bullpen not to worry about today.’ And sure enough.”

Love’s performance paid dividends not only Friday, but throughout the series, providing UNC some valuable pitching flexibility heading into Saturday and Sunday.

In addition to banning his players from Boshamer Wednesday to ensure they took a day off and holding a meeting Thursday in which he told them they needed to play like it’s the postseason the rest of the way, Forbes spoke with his pitchers about how one or two more needed to step up for the team to make a postseason run. That message resonated with Caleb Cozart and Connor Ollio, who, along with Gage Gillian, shut out Louisville, 5-0, on Saturday.

The shutout marked the Tar Heels’ first since an 8-0 win against North Carolina A&T on Feb. 25, 2020. It was also the first time Louisville had been shut out since Georgia Tech blanked the Cardinals on March 23, 2019. As much as anything, though, it was the continuation of what Love started Friday. So, too, was Sunday, when Shawn Rapp, Nik Pry, Caden O’Brien and Gillian helped steer UNC to a 10-5 win.

Overall, Louisville’s six runs across all three games tied for its fewest in any three-game series since joining the ACC in 2015.

“He’s a tone-setter,” said Rapp of Love. “When he comes in and has an outing like that, even if he doesn’t go a complete game, even if he goes seven and keeps them to a couple (runs), it sets the tone for everybody. The pitchers come in more confident, the hitters are more locked in. Everybody is feeling the energy. And especially with a home series like this in the Bosh, it keeps everybody involved. Everybody is fired up. This was probably the most energy this weekend that we’ve had this year in the Bosh.”

That was the general consensus among all the players, including Ollio, who said the home crowd was the liveliest it had been since the 2019 super regional. Subsequently, the Tar Heel dugout was as energized it had been in quite some time. It was also fuller, as all the pitchers stayed in the dugout instead of the bullpen, forming what Brett Centracchio called a “mega dugout.”

“We were like, ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s put everybody together and let’s get loud and rowdy,’” said Ollio, who tossed four hitless innings Saturday en route to the win. “It was a tough mindset. Our backs are against the wall, and we’re all going to fight together.”

That they certainly did.

As good as its pitchers were, the team’s defense was just as spectacular; UNC made only one error after committing eight in its previous series against Notre Dame, and didn’t make the same kind of mistakes that haunted it against UNCG. The Tar Heels also received contributions from up and down the lineup, combining for 20 runs on 27 hits and 11 walks.

Centracchio was particularly impressive, going 6-for-12 with four runs scored, three RBIs, three doubles and a home run. Given the chance Sunday to talk about how UNC kept putting runs on the board, the first baseman instead chose to focus on the team’s pitching.

“I just want to credit our pitchers especially because they threw up zeroes right after we scored, and that was definitely the difference-maker all weekend,” he said. “Maybe in the past we would put up a three-spot and the other team scores two and the momentum is not there. But I felt like we had momentum every inning this series.”

Because of that, the Tar Heels (24-22, 17-16 ACC) likely find themselves on the good side of the NCAA tournament bubble heading into the last week of the regular season. They’re also very much alive in the Coastal Division race, trailing first-place Georgia Tech by just two games. UNC visits the Yellow Jackets for a three-game series that begins Thursday.

“What I like the most is our guys from the start of the game Friday, they looked like they expected to win, and when you’re at UNC, that’s how you’ve gotta play,” Forbes said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. I also told them before the series started that the most dangerous teams in my coaching career are the ones at this time of year who are playing together but also know they can’t take a day off and they’ve got some talent. All of a sudden they get hot, and those teams can be really dangerous. That’s what we hope to be.”

With a pitcher of Love’s caliber, they unquestionably are.

On top of everything else that made the Tar Heels’ sweep significant, it marked a special sendoff for seven seniors playing in their final home series – Kyle Blendinger, Centracchio, Jake Holtzapple, Chris Joyner, Michael Oh, Dallas Tessar and Max Troiani. It could also very well be Love’s last.

“I tried not to think about it because I still have two years left if I want to come back,” he said. “I really don’t want to leave, so I try not to think about it as much as possible. But yeah, it’s definitely in the back of my mind. So, I guess if it is the last time, it’s a pretty good way to go out.”