For much of Tuesday night’s 14-9 win over UNCW, it seemed as if North Carolina would cruise to victory, outscoring the Seahawks 9-0 in the first two innings and showing no signs of slowing down after its sweep of Louisville.
That, however, was until the top of the seventh inning, when UNCW erupted for five runs to cut UNC’s 11-3 lead to three. The Seahawks then added another run in the eighth, bringing the score to 11-9.
Given how much they need wins at this point in the season and how such a loss would’ve likely erased much, if not all, of the momentum they built against the Cardinals, the Tar Heels could’ve panicked as they entered the home dugout in the bottom of the eighth. Instead, they went about business as usual, said Angel Zarate. And with three runs, they put the Seahawks away for good.
“Our main focus was just have good at-bats because those are just contagious,” Zarate said. "You get one good at-bat, then two, three, four. In the bottom of the eighth, (Max) Riemer led off with a really good at-bat (drawing a walk) and it just trickled over to the next guy. That was really just the main focus, just control what we can – and having good at-bats is something we can control.”
So many times throughout this season, UNC (25-22) has shown a tendency to press in similar situations. That it didn’t is a sign of how much progress it has made in recent weeks, said Scott Forbes.
“Confidence is confidence, and you get confidence from playing well and winning games at the end of the day,” said the first-year head coach. “But I also think when you sweep a team the caliber of Louisville, it does even more for your confidence. It makes you feel like, ‘OK, if we play well, we can beat anybody in the country.’”
After playing no more than five straight home games in March and April, Forbes felt optimistic that the Tar Heels’ six-game homestand that began on May 5 and ended Tuesday could give his club a chance to build some momentum. It certainly did, and now UNC will look to build on that as it heads to Atlanta for its final regular-season series against Georgia Tech.
“It’s just shown us what we can do and how good of a team we can be,” Zarate said. “For a long time, we’ve told ourselves, ‘We haven’t played our best baseball yet.’ And some of our best baseball is starting to show up at a crucial point. Toward the end of the season is when you need to play your best baseball. So, I think it’s really helped, and I think if we can do it here at home we can definitely do it away, at Georgia Tech.”
Horvath’s hot hitting
As has so often been the case in recent weeks, Mac Horvath found himself at the center of a decisive inning for the Tar Heels. The freshman led off the second with a single to left field, then put the exclamation point on the eight-run inning when he hit a three-run home run that traveled 365 feet and left his bat at 101.3 mph, according to UNC’s analytics team.
“I saw a fastball, and I put a good swing on it,” Horvath said. “I didn’t know if it was going to go or not. The outfielder kind of looked like he was camping under it, and I was like, ‘Ah, I just missed it.’ And it snuck out.”
Horvath later drove in Caleb Roberts on an eighth-inning single, giving the freshman four RBIs – matching his career high set against Louisville on Friday – and his first three-hit game. Over the last 12 games, the third baseman is slashing .295/.354/.636 with his first seven extra-base hits (three doubles and four homers). That’s a far cry from the .042/.148/.042 line he posted in his first 24 career at-bats.
Forbes has praised Horvath multiple times over the last week for how he handled his early struggles and the work he put in with assistant coach Jesse Wierzbicki to change his swing.
“It’s definitely hard to tweak some things in the middle of a season, especially when you’ve been doing it a certain way,” Horvath said. “The main thing was presetting my hips, really getting in a more simpler position to be able to fire from, and just keeping everything a little bit simpler so I can be quicker to the ball.”
A sense of normalcy
Tuesday provided the Tar Heels a glimpse of what they’ve been missing this season, as Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision Friday to lift mass gathering limits allowed UNC to sell extra tickets for the UNCW game. That resulted in the largest crowd of the season (1,500 fans) for the home finale.
“I didn’t even realize (that was the last home game) until now,” Zarate said. “You kind of made me sad there. It was good to have that win. We had good attendance today. I think we’re really starting to believe in ourselves, believe in our talent, and I think the fans are, too. It was good to play in front of a huge crowd.”
With less than two weeks left until Selection Monday, D1Baseball.com released its latest NCAA Tournament projections Tuesday. Aided by their sweep of Louisville, the Tar Heels checked in as the No. 3 seed in the Spokane Regional, along with Gonzaga, Oregon State and Connecticut.
This year more than ever, it’s difficult to predict which metrics the NCAA selection committee will value most. Nonconference record, nonconference RPI rank and nonconference strength of schedule are three that are sure to be treated different considering the number of nonconference games that each team has played varies significantly.
UNC is 8-6 in nonconference games this season, including a 5-6 record in midweek contests. It sits at No. 47 in nonconference RPI and No. 11 in nonconference strength of schedule, which is first among Power 5 teams, according to WarrenNolan.com. Duke is second at No. 19 overall.
Although they lost to UNCG and Coastal Carolina as well as dropped both of their games against an NCAA Tournament-caliber Liberty squad, the Tar Heels also have wins over ECU, South Carolina and Campbell in midweek action. Forbes said he hopes the committee takes all that into account when the time comes to review his team’s resume.
“We lost some midweek games, but I still feel like they made us better,” Forbes said. “And we also won some big midweek games. … So, I think it should matter because you pick your midweek schedule, for the most part – not always in COVID, in certain areas. But you do decide, like, (UNCW) coach (Randy) Hood and I could’ve got on the phone (Tuesday) and not played. They’re going to Charlotte. They just had a big weekend series. Teams are doing that, and it blows my mind. I don’t think that’s right to do that because your kids want to play games – they don’t want to spend three days practicing.”
The Tar Heels will hit the road for their final regular-season series when they travel to Georgia Tech. The three-game set kicks off at 7 p.m. Thursday at Russ Chandler Stadium.
Picked to finish third in the Coastal Division in the ACC preseason coaches poll, the Yellow Jackets (26-20, 19-14 ACC) currently sit atop the division. They’re coming off a 7-6, 14-inning win over Georgia on Tuesday.