Tar Heels Fall to Pittsburgh in ACC Tournament Opener
UNC turns focus to Friday's showdown with NC State
For the last two weeks, during which North Carolina has gone from firmly on the outside looking in for an NCAA Tournament bid to at least on the bubble, Scott Forbes and his team have talked about honing in their focus and playing as if it’s the postseason.
That approach helped UNC play some of its best baseball against Louisville and Georgia Tech. But playing in their first postseason game in two years Tuesday at Truist Field in Charlotte, the sixth-seeded Tar Heels couldn’t carry that over, losing to 10th-seeded Pittsburgh, 5-3, in the first game of Pool C at the ACC Championship.
“Gotta give a lot of credit to Pitt,” Forbes said. “They did some things we didn’t do. They got the big hits that we didn’t get. I thought (Mitch) Myers was outstanding. He’s been good for them the entire season. He’s their Friday night guy, and he has given them a chance to win every time he’s gone out there.”
“At the end of the day, we just have to play better,” Forbes added. “I didn’t think we played that well tonight, top to bottom. We gave them some free outs and some free passes.”
Tuesday’s defeat eliminated UNC (26-25, 18-18 ACC) from the ACC Championship. Due to the pool-play format and a tiebreaker in which the highest-seeded team in each pool advances in the event of a tie, the winner of Thursday’s game between third-seeded N.C. State and Pittsburgh will advance to Saturday’s semifinals.
The Tar Heels – who rank 48th in the RPI, fourth in strength of schedule and first in games against Quadrant 1 opponents (32), according to WarrenNolan.com – are still projected by most outlets to reach the NCAA Tournament. But with Louisville, Virginia and Pittsburgh all winning Tuesday, UNC could solidify its tournament chances with a win over N.C. State on Friday.
“It’s a big game, obviously (against) an in-state rival,” said Angel Zarate, who went 2-for-3 with a double and two walks against the Panthers. “I think we just need to go out there and try to have some fun and just embrace it. We’re at the Charlotte Knights’ stadium playing N.C. State. We know it’s going to be a good game. It’s going to be probably a packed house at 7 o’clock at night. What more could you ask for?
“We’ll probably just spread around, ‘Hey, there’s no pressure. We’ve already been through a lot in the season.’ Technically, it is just another game, but we know the level we have to play at and we know the level we’re going to play at because when we see that N.C. State red, we automatically play at a higher level.”
A rough start
Although he’s flashed great stuff throughout this season, Connor Ollio has often struggled with his command. The right-hander, however, showed better control in his three appearances heading into the ACC Championship, earning him the start Tuesday.
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, Ollio’s command problems resurfaced against Pittsburgh, as he walked three of the seven batters he faced in 1 1/3 innings. He also threw a wild pitch that moved two runners into scoring position in the second inning, eventually leading to the Panthers scoring the game’s first run on a fielder’s choice. Forbes removed Ollio after 34 pitches – 18 balls, 16 strikes – and while Gage Gillian, Nik Pry and Shawn Rapp were effective in relief, UNC couldn’t dig itself out of the early hole.
“He had good stuff,” Forbes said. “It was just the strikes, just too many walks, behind in the count. The first guy, he just walks him right away. I thought he flirted a little bit and we kind of got out of some lucky jams. He didn’t have it (his command) in the second inning, and obviously Gage is Gage. He came in and got us out of it and bridged the gap as long as he could.
“When your starters besides (Austin) Love just aren’t giving us innings, it’s hard to count on those relievers that need to go two innings to go three or four. And that’s what we’ve had to do, unfortunately. It caught up with us.”
A bang-bang play
After falling behind 1-0 in the top of the second inning, the Tar Heels seemed poised to tie the game when, with two outs and a runner on first in the bottom frame, Max Riemer lined a two-out double past the diving right fielder. Mac Horvath, however, was thrown out at home plate on a great relay throw from center fielder Jordan Anderson to second baseman David Yanni to catcher Riley Wash.
Forbes said he didn’t think the play dampened his players’ spirits, but it proved crucial in what was a one-run game most of the night.
“When there are two outs and the ball hits off the wall and you’ve got a runner like Mac, I thought it was bang-bang, and he got a glove on him,” Forbes said. “It was a good play by them, a good tandem.”
Another comeback falls short
Trailing 3-0, UNC finally broke through against Myers in the bottom of the fifth inning, when Caleb Roberts laced a two-out, bases-loaded single into center field to score two runs. It felt as if UNC had seized the momentum as Chase Smith took over for Myers, but the sidearm reliever got Danny Serretti to ground out to end the inning.
The Tar Heels threatened again in the bottom of the eighth, loading the bases with one out. But they came away with only one run via an RBI groundout by Tomas Frick. That proved to be the only run that Smith and closer Jordan McCrum allowed in 4 1/3 innings of one-hit relief, as UNC fell to 0-22 when trailing after six innings this season.
“If the other team is ahead and you’re behind and they’ve got their closer in, you’ve got your work cut out for you,” Forbes said. “And it seems like we’ve gotten runners out there, we just have not been able to get that big hit late in the game. It’s not that our guys aren’t trying and aren’t competing. We just haven’t gotten it.”
The Tar Heels will get two days off before facing N.C. State at 7 p.m. Friday at Truist Field in the final game of ACC Championship pool play. The Wolfpack (28-15, 19-14 ACC) swept UNC in March in Chapel Hill and is 19-4 in its last 23 games.