Pitching Lifts Tar Heels to Series Win Over Miami
Austin Love, Shawn Rapp have UNC feeling better about its rotation
For just a few days a few weeks ago, Shawn Rapp felt as if the moment he’d long been waiting for had finally arrived.
With North Carolina desperately needing a starting pitcher other than Austin Love to pitch deep into games, pitching coach Bryant Gaines texted Rapp to tell him he’d be making his first career start against Duke. The opportunity to start an ACC game – against the rival Blue Devils, no less – was a dream come true for the redshirt freshman. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Weather altered the series schedule and, in turn, UNC’s rotation. And despite being needed in relief against Duke and then Pittsburgh last weekend, Rapp remained committed to his role, knowing his chance to start would eventually come.
Once it did, he showed he was more than ready.
In helping the Tar Heels sweep Friday’s doubleheader against Miami, Rapp started Game 2 and tossed six sensational innings, allowing two runs on four hits in the 6-5 win. On top of logging the most innings of his career, the lefty struck out a career-high eight batters. He also became the first UNC starter not named Love to go five innings since redshirt freshman Max Alba went 7 2/3 against Clemson on March 14.
“Obviously, first start, there were a little bit of jitters,” Rapp said. “And then the first pitch didn’t go particularly well – the first pitch is a line shot into right (for a single). But I just tried to settle in, tried to relax as best I could and make pitch after pitch.”
The Hurricanes (22-13, 14-12 ACC) capitalized on their leadoff single, seizing a 1-0 lead on a sacrifice fly. They then put some more pressure on Rapp in the second inning, drawing a pair of walks, but he escaped the frame unscathed with a pair of fly outs to center field.
That marked the beginning of a streak of 13 consecutive batters retired by Rapp, who mixed his fastball and changeup with a slider Miami couldn’t figure out on his way to throwing 100 pitches – 46 more than he’s thrown in any of his 24 career relief appearances.
“He knows how to pitch, he’s gotten better and he believes in himself,” said Forbes of Rapp. “I know he had some jitters because it was his first start, but he’s been a starter (in high school) and had to learn how to be a reliever. So it wasn’t really hard for him to go out there and start. That’s what I saw from all my years as a pitching coach. I saw, ‘OK, he wasn’t great in the first, and then he got better and better and better.’ And those guys are starters usually.”
Love has displayed that same quality throughout his first season in the Tar Heels’ rotation. And although the redshirt sophomore’s stats in UNC’s 4-2 win in Game 1 weren’t as eye-popping as they’ve been at times this year, the outing was as impressive as any.
Facing a deep Hurricanes lineup that entered Friday batting .298 with 27 home runs in its last 16 games, Love allowed one run on seven hits with two walks and seven strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings. He tossed first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 27 batters he faced, and induced 18 swings and misses to continue his dominance of Miami – which he’s surrendered two runs against in 17 2/3 innings.
“The last couple of times I’ve faced them, I’ve probably had my best stuff,” Love said. “I don’t know if it’s just that they’re a good team that makes me play the best I can, but I’ve definitely had success against them in the past.”
Friday’s start was Love’s 11th of the season. He’s up to 61 2/3 innings, the most among all ACC pitchers and 30 1/3 more than any other Tar Heel pitcher.
“He’s been our horse,” Forbes said. “And to never have started here, that’s impressive, in my opinion. He’s just that type of kid. He redshirted, he didn’t take the easy route and leave UNC. … He’s earned everything that he’s got, and he’s the leader of our pitching staff. He sets the tone. That’s what we needed. We needed somebody in Game 1 to give us some length, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Love and Rapp proved to be instrumental in UNC (20-17, 14-13 ACC) capturing this weekend’s crucial ACC series win, its fifth of the season, and provided reasons to be optimistic about the rotation going forward. But after Chris Joyner – who has thrived in relief – started Sunday’s 8-1 loss and allowed four runs and five hits in 1 2/3 innings, the search for another arm continues.
“Right now I feel good about two starters,” Forbes said. “We’ll try to figure out that third one. Maybe we’ll just match. Heck, we might even go with an opener. I don’t know what we’ll do on that third day, but we’ll work on figuring that out as a coaching staff and see if we can be a little bit better, at least three or four innings on that third game. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t have somebody who is settled into that role, you want to try to get through that lineup one or two times max and then go to your bullpen.”
Thompson on a tear
For as good as he’s been all season – slashing .350/.429/.521 and playing an exceptional center field – Justice Thompson went through a bit of a lull from late March into early April, going 9-for-42 with 16 strikeouts over an 11-game stretch.
That, however, already feels like a distant memory.
In going 7-for-11 with three RBIs against Miami, Thompson improved to 17-for-40 over his last 10 games. He’s slashing .425/.444/.600 with 10 RBIs and six multi-hit games in that span.
“The biggest part for me is making sure I continue to work,” said Thompson when asked about the adjustments he’s made. “The coaching staff and all of the guys on the team, we get after it every single day. We push one another and help one another get better. It’s a credit to them.”
Welcome back, Angel
After missing seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols, Angel Zarate returned Friday and started all three games at designated hitter. The redshirt sophomore wasted little time in making an impact, doubling in his first at-bat and finishing the series 4-for-10 with two doubles, two RBIs and two runs scored.
“Having him back just kind of helped our team out a little bit,” Thompson said. "Angel is going to find a way to contribute in any way possible.”
Given the emergence of Dallas Tessar – who is 13-for-37 with three homers, four doubles and 11 runs scored over the last 11 games – Forbes has said over the last week that he and Zarate will both be in the lineup going forward. UNC is already seeing the benefits of that.
“We have struggled a little bit at the bottom (of the lineup),” Forbes said. “That’s going to help in that it’s going to push everybody down. Angel, he’s a stud baseball player, but he’s also a stud kid. Our guys you could tell were happy to have him back because he’s just even-keeled. If there was ever somebody who would come out and rip a double after being gone that long, it would be Angel Zarate.”
Horvath makes a splash
Coming off a strong fall and preseason that earned him the starting third base job on Opening Day, expectations were high for freshman Mac Horvath. But after struggling over the first two weeks, he found himself out of the lineup.
In recent weeks, Horvath has put together some better at-bats. And in the fifth inning of Friday’s second game, he was finally rewarded for his persistence, pushing the Tar Heels’ lead to 3-1 with a two-run home run, the first of his career. According to UNC’s analytics team, the ball left his bat at 100.2 mph and traveled 384 feet.
“Here’s a kid who turned down a lot of money (in the 2020 MLB Draft) to come here,” Forbes said. “He’s really good in the preseason and he gets off to a horrendous start, and it got to him a little bit. … He’s a tough kid, and I think he figured out, ‘OK, No. 1, I need to make some changes to my swing. And when I get back in, I’m going to really concentrate on just playing and not worrying.’ …
“What he has done since he came back off the bench, he hasn’t gotten hits, but he’s seen the ball, he’s walked, he’s gotten on base a little bit. And we kept saying, ‘Man, he’s just one bullet away probably from getting that confidence.’ And that was really cool to see. I could see that big smile. You can see it on a kid when they come running around third base.”
Horvath’s homer came minutes after he made an outstanding defensive play to end the top of the fifth, diving to his right to snag a ball that left Carlos Perez’s bat at 102 mph. He then threw a strike to first base.
“What I’m most proud of about Mac is he’s really turned himself into a good defender at third base,” Forbes said. “He’s been a shortstop, and that hot corner is hard to play. He’s got a great arm. He keeps getting better.”
A controversial call
Down 4-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning Sunday, UNC seemed poised for a breakthrough after Horvath led off with a single and Caleb Roberts smashed the next pitch to the left-field warning track. The ball bounced off left fielder Jordan Lala’s glove, then off the fence before falling back into his glove. But the third-base umpire ruled Roberts out, and the Hurricanes doubled up Horvath at first base. The call stood after a replay review.
“The umpire, I don’t know if he was out far enough – maybe he was,” Forbes said. “But at the end of the day, umpires are human like we all are. He thought he had caught it. He called him out. So I’m screaming at Mac to go back. I saw the same thing Mac did. He made the right read and would’ve scored easily. The replay did not show anything, so I don’t even really want to talk about it, to be honest with you. … Our umpires weren’t able to see the replay for some reason or the other, and that’s very disappointing.”
Had Roberts not been called out, Horvath would’ve likely scored, cutting Miami’s lead to 4-2, and the Tar Heels would’ve had Zarate, Thompson and Danny Serretti due up with no outs and a runner on second. Instead, Zarate grounded out to second two pitches later, capping a four-pitch inning for Miami starter Jake Garland – who entered the frame having already thrown 70 pitches.
“That’s a big part of the game,” Forbes said. “Not that it’s an excuse, but it’s a fact. At the end of the day, the ball hit the wall and we’ve got nobody out with the heart of our lineup up. I really believe it’s 4-3 or 4-4. I could be wrong. Our guys kept fighting, so I give them credit for that. But there are rare times where one play can change the game, and I really do think that could have changed the entire game.”
Emanuel’s historic debut
A bonus of the series schedule being altered due to inclement weather, Forbes said he watched all of Saturday’s Houston Astros game, during which former Tar Heel pitcher Kent Emanuel made his memorable Major League debut.
After Astros starter Jake Odorizzi was forced to leave the game against the Los Angeles Angels after just five pitches due to forearm tightness, Emanuel threw 8 2/3 innings in relief. In doing so, he became the first pitcher since 1974 (John Montefusco) to pitch eight-plus innings in relief and get the win in his MLB debut. He also became the second UNC pitcher in four days to pick up the win in his MLB debut, joining J.B. Bukauskas.
“Kent is a special one,” Forbes said. “He’s been through a lot, but he was really, really special for us. He was here three years, (when UNC claimed) three national seeds. I wouldn’t be in the seat I’m in without a guy like Kent Emanuel. Watching him pitch, I just thought back to calling pitches and how easy it was, honestly. It was like a video game. It’s every kid’s dream (to pitch in the Majors), and to see him go through the surgery, go through the suspension and be up and then all of a sudden pretty much throw a complete game was pretty cool."
The Tar Heels will conclude a five-game homestand when they host Charlotte at 6 p.m. Tuesday. UNC and the 49ers were slated to play on April 13, but the game was postponed due to student-athlete welfare concerns and rescheduled for Tuesday after the Tar Heels’ game against Gardner-Webb was canceled due to a scheduling conflict with the Runnin' Bulldogs.
Picked to finish fifth in the East Division in the Conference USA preseason coaches poll, Charlotte (29-11, 17-3 C-USA) sits atop the East Division after taking three of four games from Old Dominion over the weekend. Coached by former UNC pitcher and assistant coach Robert Woodard, the 49ers have won 20 of their last 23 games.