Coming off a series win over a Miami team that boasts one of the nation’s deepest lineups, North Carolina felt as optimistic as it had been in weeks about its pitching staff.
Tuesday’s loss to No. 19 Charlotte did nothing to change that, as four Tar Heels combined for 9 1/3 shutout innings before giving up four runs in the 10th. But after being swept by No. 6 Notre Dame over the weekend, Scott Forbes found himself once again talking about his team’s pitching struggles as he spoke with reporters Sunday.
As has been the case just about every Friday this season, Austin Love gave UNC a chance to win the series opener, but the Tar Heels fell 4-0. UNC’s bats eventually woke up Saturday, erupting for 10 runs in the final three innings. That, however, wasn’t enough, as the Fighting Irish sealed the series with a 13-12 win. At the time, the 13 runs were the most surrendered by the Tar Heels all season. That was until Sunday, when Notre Dame never let up in a 19-5 victory.
The 19 runs were the most surrendered by UNC since giving up 19 against Georgia Tech on May 12, 2001. The Fighting Irish’s 36 runs on the weekend were also the most allowed by the Tar Heels in a series since giving up 42 against Miami from April 15-17, 2005.
“We just got taken to the woodshed by the best team in the league,” Forbes said. “You’ve gotta tip your hat to them, tough outs throughout the order. I thought we fought. Our guys definitely didn’t quit. We just got beat handily. When you don’t pitch well enough in this game, at the end of the day you’re not going to win. That’s basically the story of the weekend.”
And UNC’s struggles on the road.
With Sunday’s loss, the Tar Heels (20-21, 14-16 ACC) fell to 5-12 in away games this season. They’ve posted a 7.31 ERA in those 17 games, compared to a 3.68 ERA in 23 home games.
“It seems like on the road, especially, we’ll maybe have a big inning and then we’ll turn right around and give up a big inning,” Forbes said. “So therefore you lose your momentum. And when it’s on the road, it makes it harder because the home team is going to have a little bit of that advantage anyway. So I would say for the most part we just haven’t been good enough on the bump top to bottom.”
As much as they were hindered by their pitching, the Tar Heels’ defense wasn’t that much better.
Making his third appearance of the season at first base, Johnny Castagnozzi mishandled the first ball that the Fighting Irish put into play Friday. UNC – which entered the weekend ranked fourth in the ACC and 23rd nationally in fielding percentage (.978) – went on to finish with five errors for the game, its most since committing five against UNCW on April 26, 2016.
The Tar Heels made eight total errors on the weekend, leading to seven unearned runs.
“There were some errors on our pitchers, which is obviously not something that’s good from the standpoint of it might be a pick or it might be just picking up a bunt and throwing it to first base,” Forbes said. “And then Colby (Wilkerson) on the fly ball (Friday) was a double error. He stayed with it, and I think he took his head off it a little bit. He’s been really good.
“I don’t think there’s anything to really credit it to. It’s turf. The wind is the wind. You’ve got to deal with it, and it’s a game changer. (Justice Thompson), he just missed that ball in center field (Sunday). Those are plays you’ve gotta make, especially against good teams like Notre Dame.”
Among the few positives of the weekend, Love continued his strong season on the mound.
The right-hander allowed two runs on four hits with three walks and six strikeouts in six innings, and has now recorded a quality start eight times in 12 tries this season – including four times in five road starts. Unlike most of his fellow pitchers, the redshirt sophomore has been at his best away from Boshamer Stadium, registering a 2.97 ERA on the road compared to a 5.02 ERA in seven home starts.
“Austin has been by far our best guy all year,” Forbes said. “Thank goodness for him or we wouldn’t have a fighting chance and be where we’re at least in striking distance to finish strong. It’s a credit to Austin. He’s a great kid, a hard worker. We’ve just got to find some more guys to try to follow in his footsteps and give us a better chance.”
Entering Saturday’s game, Walter State Community College transfer Max Riemer had only seen action in two games this season, coming off the bench as a pinch hitter in UNC’s loss at Liberty on March 16 and in the 21-8 win over Duke on April 12.
The catcher will likely see more playing time down the stretch, though, after showing some pop against the Fighting Irish.
After replacing Tomas Frick in the field in the sixth inning of Saturday’s game, Riemer led off the ninth with his first home run as a Tar Heel, a towering blast over the right-field fence. That earned him the start at catcher Sunday, when he went 2-for-4 with a two-run single and a double.
“He’s going to help us moving forward,” Forbes said. “Looking at the way he played this weekend, we might have should have already had him in there with more opportunities. But Max is a junior college kid. He’s a mature kid, another kid who does everything right. I think he’s tough, a left-handed bat. I think for our future, too, he’s going to be very important to give us some balance with Tomas Frick back there, to have a right-handed hitting catcher and a left-handed hitting catcher.
“So I was really proud of Max staying the course and being ready for his opportunity. We talk about how you never know when it’s coming, and he was ready for it.”
The bigger picture
On the heels of five straight losses, UNC finds itself under .500 for the first time this season. The Tar Heels have played the fourth-hardest schedule in the nation, according to WarrenNolan.com, and it doesn’t get easier heading into the final month of the regular season, with weekend series against No. 5 Louisville and at Georgia Tech remaining. UNC also hosts midweek games against three in-state teams in Campbell, UNCG and UNCW.
In talking about their performance this season, many players have mentioned how the team tends to press too much. That might be a natural reaction right now, especially for a team as young as this one, but Forbes said it’s imperative not to panic.
“We’re at the point in the season where beating them up, yelling and doing all that isn’t going to do any good,” Forbes said. “You saw the guys fight (Saturday) night down 12-2. This is a great group, and they’ve done everything we’ve asked of them in a difficult situation with COVID. We’ve had no issues. They want it, they want it bad. The pressure just comes from wanting to win with this group. It doesn’t come from being selfish at all.
“So you just encourage them, you keep working with them, you keep coaching them, you stay positive because any type of negativity doesn’t help at all. You just keep working, keep your nose to the grindstone. That’s all you can do in these situations.”
The Tar Heels return to Boshamer Stadium on Tuesday for a 6 p.m. tilt against Campbell. Picked to win the Big South in the league’s preseason coaches poll, the Camels (23-13) are coming off a three-game sweep of UNC Asheville.