Scott Forbes, Players Preview Lubbock Regional

No. 3 seed UNC awaits Friday's showdown with No. 2 seed UCLA

Shortly before North Carolina’s name appeared during Monday’s NCAA Tournament selection show, Scott Forbes heard UNC had been selected as the No. 3 seed in the Lubbock Regional.

For a team that entered Monday squarely on the NCAA bubble, the first-year head coach could have broke the news to his players to help alleviate their nerves. Instead, he sat back and watched as tension turned into celebration upon learning their postseason fate.

“That's a moment that you can't take away from them, and they had some anxious faces,” said Forbes on Tuesday. “There have been years here that we're not sure. That's how hard it is, and to see their joy – and the cool thing for me was as soon as we got picked, they didn't care about watching the rest of the show. They were dressed in their practice stuff, they were ready to go practice.

“That's kind of how this team's been all year. We've had some ups and downs, obviously, with wins and losses, but we haven't had many ups and downs with effort and attitude and working hard, so that's all you can ask for as a coach.”

Friday’s contest against No. 2 seed UCLA will be the Tar Heels’ first NCAA Tournament game since they lost to Auburn in Game 3 of the 2019 Chapel Hill Super Regional, falling one win shy of the College World Series. Much has happened in the 724 days since then, from the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the 2020 season after just 19 games to UNC transitioning from Mike Fox to Forbes. But the Tar Heels are as hungry as ever to return to Omaha.

“We’re definitely excited to make it, but we’re not content,” said redshirt sophomore outfielder Angel Zarate. “Obviously, we want to go out there and win the regional and win the super. But we’ve just got to take it one game at a time. Just after everything that’s happened, just being fortunate enough to keep on playing and not having the season end so early, that’s definitely something we’re thankful for. And hopefully we can just keep playing longer, for the next month.”

‘Making the end call’

Zarate is one of 15 players on UNC’s roster who has played in an NCAA Tournament game. As important as this weekend will be for getting the younger players postseason experience, it also figures to be valuable for Forbes – who, after helping the Tar Heels to Omaha seven times as an assistant, is leading the team into the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

“It's important for me to be able to manage all this stuff that I haven't had to manage before and to learn how to deal with it and not let it affect me being on the field with our guys,” he said, “because there's some things as the head coach you're going to have to do that you don't normally do with travel or decisions you make with the roster.

“But thankfully, Coach Fox involved me very heavily in all of those, so I feel pretty good about that. And honestly, I'm just pumped. I'm excited about it. I’ve always dreamed about making the end call. It doesn’t mean it's always right, but I'm excited about that opportunity.”

Leaning on Love

One decision Forbes didn’t waste much time making was who to start against UCLA.

As has been the case all season, Austin Love will get the ball for UNC on Friday. The Tar Heel ace has been dominant all year, recording a 3.68 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 95 1/3 innings, tied with Kansas’s Cole Larsen for the most among Power 5 pitchers. Love has been especially effective as of late, posting a 2.72 ERA in his last seven games (six starts).

“For me, it’s just been getting ahead with my fastball,” said Love when asked about his recent success. “And then my slider over the last couple of months has gotten a lot better, for sure. It’s been my go-to pitch for strikeouts lately. I haven’t really been using my changeup as much; it’s been more the slider.”

In his last NCAA Tournament appearance on June 9, 2019, Love turned in 4 2/3 shutout innings of relief against Auburn, striking out six batters without a walk and throwing 41 of 50 pitches for strikes. A reliever in his first three seasons in Chapel Hill, the redshirt sophomore said he’d be OK pitching in relief, if needed, this postseason.

“I’d say I’m pretty comfortable with it considering it’s what I did up until this year,” he said. “So, I don’t think it would be that big a change.”

Regional rotation

The biggest question facing UNC entering the Lubbock Regional – which also includes No. 8 national seed Texas Tech and No. 4 regional seed Army – is who will start the rest of the weekend.

Nine pitchers not named Love have started for the Tar Heels this season, including freshman Max Carlson, who has been sidelined since mid-April with an elbow injury. Redshirt junior Joey Lancellotti – who has logged 80 career appearances (21 starts) – has also been out since mid-March after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Although several players have been given the chance to cement themselves as the team’s second starter, no one has. But UNC’s experimentation hasn’t been completely unsuccessful.

“On the reverse side of that, we've had some guys emerge, like a Gage Gillian,” Forbes said. "We put (Shawn) Rapp back in the bullpen. He's been really good again. So in an age of thinking outside the box in baseball, that's what we're trying to do and trying to decide, ‘OK, what's the best way to manage our pitching staff to get the most out of our pitching staff?' We know Love is Love. He's gonna start and hopefully throw a complete game or seven innings. But then how can we use our other guys where we could use them in a regional format, Saturday, Sunday, Monday? 

“If possible, the goal would hopefully be in three games, but in even four and then obviously five, we're looking at that. And that might be something that we haven't done here in the past, but we may go into Game 2 and just go 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1 and not worry about really who's starting and literally start that player as an opener.”

Gillian (1-2, 2.11 ERA) and Caden O’Brien (3-1, 4.58 ERA) have been the team’s best pitchers outside of Love, but have been at their best at the same time for only a few weeks. Gillian missed the first 14 games due to a preseason groin injury, and shortly after he debuted, O’Brien missed six games due to COVID-19 protocols.

Entering the ACC Tournament, O’Brien had posted a 7.90 ERA in his last 13 2/3 innings, but the lefty looked like his old self against N.C. State last Friday, striking out four batters in 1 2/3 innings of relief. His return to form could result in him starting a game this weekend. It could also prompt Forbes to start Gillian for the first time.

“We would still treat Gage as an opener from the standpoint of we’re not going to start Gage Gillian and expect to get 110 pitches,” Forbes said. “We’re going to expect to try to get three to four innings, and if he’s going really, really good and his pitch count is low, we’ll go five. A lot of people don’t know he recovers really well, which helps. 

“I do think if Caden O’Brien is throwing like that, to finish in the ACC Tournament, that really helps the overall pitching staff management and our confidence in what we do moving forward because we need Caden to throw like that to have a chance.”

Caleb Cozart (0-0, 7.25 ERA) will also draw consideration as an opener after he found success in that role in his final three regular-season outings, allowing two runs in 5 1/3 innings.

Battle-tested

Listed by the selection committee as one of the final four teams to make the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels’ strength of schedule surely helped them earn a spot in the field of 64. UNC played the seventh-toughest schedule in the nation, according to WarrenNolan.com. It featured 29 games against NCAA Tournament teams, including seven from outside the ACC.

Forbes stood by his decision to play such a difficult schedule throughout the season, and he did so again Tuesday.

“We always play a tough schedule here, generally,” he said. “But I will say it was even tougher once they announced the additions to the ACC of playing those extra weekends. And then the midweeks, if I had known we were going to have those three additional weekends, I don't know if we would have played East Carolina twice. I don't know if we would have played Liberty twice. We definitely would have kept the South Carolina game. But we could have changed them. I could have changed them.

“I do the scheduling, and I felt like in a year where we missed so much, I wasn't that concerned about the competition. I just wanted to play a great schedule, and I wanted to play all 50 games because our guys didn't get to play last season.”

The Tar Heels now hope that schedule has prepared them for June.

“I think it’s definitely going to help us knowing we’ve played some of the best teams in the country,” Love said. “At times, we haven’t played our best, but we know any given day we can go out there and we can beat anybody in the country – or at least we feel that way. So, I think we have that in the back of our minds. And if we keep that mentality, then I think we can do what we want to do.”

UCLA impressions

UCLA (35-18) entered the season ranked by most outlets as the No. 2 team in the country, but through its first 27 games, it sat at 16-11 overall and 5-6 in Pac-12 play. The Bruins, however, have played their best baseball as of late. They enter Friday having won four straight games and four of their last five series.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, it's West Coast baseball,’” Forbes said. “We played UCLA before, and they played pretty traditional baseball. Traditionally, they don't bunt 120 times, they don't slow the game down tremendously. So I've always enjoyed playing them. We've had some great games. Obviously, they got the best of us on one of the best teams we've ever had here in '13 (in the College World Series). But they're good. They throw a ton of strikes, they can match up out of the bullpen with different looks and they've got a lot of athleticism, with a guy in the heart of the order (in JT Schwartz) that's got some major juice.”