Down two of its top players in Caden O’Brien and Angel Zarate due to COVID-19 protocols and with Max Carlson out due to recurring shoulder soreness, the odds were stacked against North Carolina heading into its weekend series at No. 17 Pittsburgh.
Still, despite facing one of the ACC’s best 1-2 punches in Mitch Myers and Matt Gilbertson, the Tar Heels nearly won both games of Saturday’s doubleheader, falling 6-2 and 3-2. They then got out to a 5-0 first-inning lead Sunday and held off multiple comeback attempts from the Panthers to come away with a 10-9 win.
Given the circumstances, a lesser team easily could have been swept. But UNC did just enough to leave Pittsburgh with something to build on.
“That was a hard-fought, gritty win for our guys,” coach Scott Forbes said. “After the game, I took my hat off and I told them, ‘This is why I don’t have any hair anymore.’ To lose a doubleheader on the road against one of the better teams in the league and to find a way to salvage a game just showed the toughness that we have. And also, to be able to do it down two of our best guys … I was really proud of our guys. They found a way.”
The Tar Heels (18-15, 12-12 ACC) haven’t always been able to do that this season, especially on the road, where they’re 5-9. They have, however, given themselves a chance to win all but two of their away games, dropping four by two runs or fewer and three others by four.
Even then, with four ACC series left, UNC sits only three games behind first-place Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division standings. And finding a way to win its road series at No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 21 Georgia Tech will go a long way toward determining how it finishes.
“If we can just make one better play here or there, get better with runners in scoring position, I think we have the toughness to get over that hump,” Forbes said. “Playing on the road is harder, obviously. That’s the way it should be. When you’re at your home park, it should mean something, and these teams have been good at home. We just played a Pitt team that swept Miami last weekend at home. So, I think we just have to get better in those situations and we can win two out of three on the road.”
Roberts’ power surge
As he’s done so often this year, Caleb Roberts set the tone for the Tar Heels on Sunday, hitting the first pitch of the game over the right-center-field wall. The leadoff home run was UNC’s first since Dylan Harris hit one against Xavier on Feb. 17, 2019.
Roberts wasn’t finished there, though, as he led off the seventh inning with his second homer of the game. That blast extended the lead to 7-5 and kicked off a four-run inning for the Tar Heels. It also gave Roberts his third multi-homer game of the season, the most by a UNC player since Dustin Ackley notched five in 2009.
After not homering in 158 at-bats over his first two seasons, Roberts has hit a team-best nine homers in 118 at-bats this season while slashing .305/.444/.602. Those are the most home runs by a Tar Heel through 33 games since Ackley and Levi Michael each hit 10 in 2009.
Tessar continues to deliver
In a game in which both teams combined for 19 runs, Sunday’s biggest play came in the field, when Dallas Tessar, starting in left field in place of Zarate, threw out a runner trying to score the tying run from second base for the last out in the sixth inning. It was Tessar’s second outfield assist of the series and the fourth of his career.
That’s pretty good for someone who had next to no outfield experience when he transferred to UNC from Yavapai College ahead of the 2018 season.
Ever since he arrived in Chapel Hill, Tessar has made an impact whenever his number has been called. That’s once again been the case with Zarate out the last six games, during which Tessar is 9-for-22 with a home run, three doubles, three walks, six RBIs and nine runs scored. Although the Tar Heels boast some of the ACC’s best outfielders in Zarate, Roberts and Justice Thompson, Forbes said Tessar’s performance over the last two weeks has earned him more playing time.
“He’s made himself a spot, that’s for sure,” Forbes said. “He’s going to be in there. Obviously, Angel will be in there when he gets back, as well. But we’re going to get them all in there because Dallas Tessar has shown he deserves to be in the lineup every single day. And that’s just Dallas Tessar. Coach (Jesse Wierzbicki) said it after he came in when he threw that guy out, that’s just what he’s done his entire career here. When he has been in there, he’s made big plays for us. He may not have hit .380, but he’s had great at-bats and played unbelievable outfield."
Tessar’s leadership – vocally and by example – has been critical the last four years. But it’s especially valuable this season, given how young UNC is.
“We don’t have a lot of guys who have played in the ACC on our team this year; we have a lot of young guys,” he said. “So you’ve gotta lead by example. It can’t just be words; it’s gotta be actions. So I take full responsibility for making sure my words are followed by my actions, and it’s important to me.”
Looking for length
With Carlson sidelined and redshirt freshman Max Alba out of the weekend rotation for now, redshirt sophomores Connor Ollio and Will Sandy started Games 1 and 3, respectively. Despite this change, the Tar Heels once again got only a few innings out of their starters.
Although redshirt sophomore Austin Love turned in another solid outing, allowing three runs and matching his career high for strikeouts (12) over 6 1/3 innings, Ollio and Sandy combined for 3 1/3 innings. Pitchers not named Love have now started nine of UNC’s last 13 games and gone just 13 1/3 total innings. None have gone longer than 2 1/3.
Meanwhile, in that same span, five relievers (Gage Gillian, Chris Joyner, O’Brien, Nik Pry and Shawn Rapp) have each registered multiple appearances of such length.
Gillian has been stretched out the most of that bunch, and has perhaps been the Tar Heels’ most dominating pitcher since returning from a preseason groin injury and making his season debut on March 16. In going 4 2/3 innings for the second time in his last four games Sunday, the redshirt junior allowed one run, struck out four batters and walked two while tossing a season-high 68 pitches. He now boasts 1.27 ERA in 21 1/3 innings, and could be in line to earn his first start.
“The thing with Gage that we’ve got to keep an eye on is it takes time to build that up,” Forbes said. “You want a starter to be able to throw 80 pitches. Now, with that being said, we need a starter to throw three innings, besides Austin Love. We’ll keep considering that.
“We had planned to start Shawn Rapp, but we got a surprise against Duke with the weekend and everything changing, so that’s still in the mix. Caden should be back this week, we hope. He’s recovering, and that will help with some depth. And at the end of the day, we need one more guy. If we were to start Gage, it’s OK. But we need another guy to step up to make up for the absence right now of (Joey) Lancellotti (after he underwent Tommy John surgery) and Carlson.”
Thankful to play
For the third time in four weekends, the Tar Heels’ series schedule was altered due to inclement weather. Game 2 of the N.C. State series began on March 27, but was completed two days later, on a Monday. UNC also played the series finale that day. The Tar Heels then played two innings of their series opener against Duke on April 9 before the game was postponed, leading to the series being completed over the next three days.
As much of an inconvenience as this has been, Forbes said it’s much better than the alternative of not playing at all, specifically due to COVID-19 issues.
“The one thing that I told our staff and we talk about is we’re not going to be a team that doesn’t play,” he said. “We’re playing unless somebody tells us we can’t play. … I’m proud of the fact that we’ve played our games. And it has been a challenge because you alter and you’ve got this or that. But at the end of the day, with COVID, they’ve given us some flexibility to get all of our games in. The schedule has been altered, but I think that’s a good thing because they took away six games and these guys deserve to play 50.”
Bukauskas’ big day
The win over Pittsburgh wasn’t the only thing that the Tar Heels celebrated Sunday, as the staff learned just a few hours before first pitch that former UNC and current Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher J.B. Bukauskas received his first MLB call-up. Forbes said after the game that he hadn’t spoken with Bukauskas yet, but he had a missed call from him.
“He sent me a really nice text saying, ‘Hey, call me when you can. Sorry that I missed you, but I want to thank you,’” Forbes said. “And the neatest thing about the text was just everything that Carolina baseball has done for (him). I’m going to try to get there (to Arizona’s next stop in Cincinnati) if I can. I can’t get there Tuesday because we have a game. But if he does not pitch out of the 'pen on Tuesday, I might make my way up there Wednesday. A lot of great recruiting history with that kid, so I’m proud of him.”
Almost exclusively a starter in the Minors, Bukauskas – whom the Houston Astros selected 15th overall in the 2017 MLB Draft – thrived as a reliever in spring training, allowing just three hits over 7 2/3 innings and striking out 14 batters without issuing a walk.
The Tar Heels return to Boshamer Stadium for a five-game homestand, beginning with Tuesday’s 6 p.m. tilt against Coastal Carolina.
Picked to finish first in the East Division in the Sun Belt preseason coaches poll, the Chanticleers (17-13, 3-6 Sun Belt) dropped two of three games against Georgia Southern over the weekend. The lone common opponent between UNC and Coastal Carolina is Duke. The Chanticleers went 1-2 against the Blue Devils, while the Tar Heels took two of three games.