Tar Heels' Toughness Shines Through in Series Win Over Duke

UNC rebounded in a big way after a rough Game 1

Shortly before Game 2 of North Carolina’s three-game series against Duke on Sunday, Scott Forbes gathered his players in the Boshamer Stadium clubhouse and issued them a challenge.

Less than 24 hours earlier, after the Tar Heels fell 4-2 in a game in which they went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position, the first-year head coach chastised them for their offensive approach. As has been the case too often, UNC had once again failed to put any pressure on its opponent’s defense. And for the Tar Heels to avoid a third straight series loss, that needed to change.

So, as he spoke to his players Sunday morning, Forbes implored them to be tougher, to focus less on results and more on putting balls in play. As it turned out, that message resonated, perhaps even more than he could have imagined.

After scoring 14 runs in its previous seven ACC games, UNC erupted for a season high in an 11-5 win over the Blue Devils. It then carried that offensive momentum into Monday’s rubber game, which the Tar Heels won 21-8. The 21 runs were their most since scoring 21 in a win over Virginia Tech on April 12, 2013. They were also tied for their most against Duke since Mike Fox’s first season as head coach in 1999.

“We felt like we had a good offense with firepower,” Forbes said. "We’d hit some home runs, but we didn’t think we were going to strike out that much. We have speed and we have some different things that we can do offensively. We had just gotten into a little bit of a rut. I think guys were looking at batting average instead of just trying to have good at-bats. There comes a point when you just have to put all that stuff aside and not worry about what your average is and just try to hit the ball hard and move it with two strikes and pressure the defense.”

That approach had been difficult for UNC hitters to employ in recent weeks, as they often found themselves pressing after the team fell behind early in games. In fact, in their seven ACC games before Sunday, the Tar Heels had been outscored 31-6 in the first five innings.

Sunday’s game followed a similar script, as the Blue Devils went up 2-0 in the second inning and eventually extended their lead to 5-2 heading into the bottom of the fifth. UNC never panicked, though. Instead, it stuck to its approach and scored three runs – highlighted by a two-run home run by graduate transfer Brett Centracchio – to tie the game.

The Tar Heels remained just as calm when Duke scored two first-inning runs Monday, rallying for four in the bottom frame to seize a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

“The energy was just different,” said freshman Colby Wilkerson. “It felt like both days it was just going to happen for us. You could just tell on guys’ faces that we were real confident and it didn’t matter what was going to be thrown at us, we were going to punch back.”

In doing so, UNC (17-13, 11-10 ACC) remains in the thick of the Coastal Division race. With five league series left, the Tar Heels are just three games behind first-place Virginia Tech, and their newfound toughness could go a long way.

“It’s really big, especially when you see where the league is at right now,” Centracchio said. “Ultimately, everybody is kind of right in the middle of the pack. It’s going to be the tougher teams that come out on top. You saw for a while we probably weren’t the toughest team, but right now, we kind of took that as a challenge.”

Centracchio’s sensational return

On what ultimately proved to be his final swing at Davidson, Centracchio hit a walk-off two-run home run against Duke on March 10, 2020. Two days later, the college baseball season came to a sudden halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Centracchio found himself uncertain of his baseball future. That was until the NCAA granted spring sport athletes an extra year of eligibility and he decided to play his final season at UNC.

Centracchio quickly established himself as the middle-of-the-order bat the Tar Heels hoped he would be, but a concussion hampered him for much of March and eventually sidelined him for six games from March 29-April 8. He then returned against the Blue Devils on Friday. 

“I was just so excited to be out there again,” he said. “It was really tough watching games from home and just trusting the process of recovering. I just told myself I was going to have as much fun as I could, be there for my teammates and just go out there and have fun swinging the bat.”

Centracchio swung the bat as well as he has all year against Duke, going 5-for-12 with a double, three home runs and six RBIs. Two of his homers came in UNC’s nine-run fifth inning Monday, making him the first Tar Heel to hit two homers in an inning since Chris Maples did so on March 23, 2002, against Florida State. At 460 feet, Centracchio’s second homer of the inning was the longest tracked by UNC’s analytics team from a Tar Heel (data goes back to 2015).

“Our equipment manager (Tyler Puryear) came up and gave me the ball when I was taken out of the game and told me,” said Centracchio of his accomplishment. “I had some stats guys down the first-base line yelling at me, ‘Brett, that was the farthest ball that we’ve recorded.’ So that was kind of cool to have them yelling at me the next inning. A home run is a home run. It was sweet.”

Timely contributions

Although Centracchio and Serretti – who went 7-for-13 with five doubles, a homer and six RBIs – delivered the loudest performances of the series, UNC got contributions from up and down its lineup, perhaps most notably from three traditional reserves.

Making his third start of the season in Game 1, sixth-year senior Dallas Tessar made one of the best defensive plays of the season Friday when the left fielder made a diving grab to rob Michael Rothenberg of extra bases. According to UNC’s analytics team, Tessar had only 3.6 seconds to make the catch. But he wasn’t done there, as he went on to finish the series 5-for-11 with his first home run of the season, four RBIs, six runs scored and two walks.

“He’s right there and he’s ready and he’s played great,” Forbes said. “I was really proud of him because he is a leader, not just with his words but by his example.”

Another player who impressed Forbes was Will Schroeder, who, after not playing in the Tar Heels’ first 28 games, started in center field Sunday with Justice Thompson out due to a team rules violation. The redshirt sophomore doubled in his first at-bat and proceeded to go 3-for-7 with two walks and four runs scored in Games 2 and 3, the latter of which he started at designated hitter.

“I always compare Will to a black stallion that had to be harnessed a little bit,” Forbes said. “Really raw, but mentally, really had a long ways to go. And to see where he is now, not to have one at-bat, he’s all in. That’s a tooled up kid who could have left here and been playing center field at a lot of places. But this is where he wants to be, this is where he wants to get his degree. I’ve constantly talked to him, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a deep outfield. Just keep working.’ And it didn’t surprise me to see him have success.”

The same goes for Wilkerson. After showing flashes of potential in 10 games (three starts), he started Games 2 and 3 and went 6-for-9 with three doubles and four runs scored. Known more for his glove than his bat, he started Sunday’s game at second base and drew his first start at third Monday.

“He’s ultra-competitive, he’s a tough out, he’s hard to strikeout, and he can defend at a high level at third, short and second,” Forbes said. “So that gives us some flexibility. We can move some guys around. But obviously, he has proven that he’s a guy right now who we have to consider putting in there every single day somewhere.”

Bullpen continues showing promise

With freshman Max Carlson limited to two innings Sunday due to recurring shoulder stiffness, pitchers not named Austin Love – who started Games 1 and 3 due to the suspension of the former on Friday – have started seven of the Tar Heels’ last 11 games and have gone just 10 innings.

UNC’s bullpen, however, continues to show signs of progress.

After surrendering a two-run homer to the first batter he faced in Game 1, redshirt sophomore Connor Ollio settled in and pitched his best game of the season. The right-hander went a season-high 4 2/3 innings, striking out a career-high six batters and retiring 14 of the last 16 he faced.

As good as Ollio was, redshirt junior Chris Joyner was that much better. The lefty entered Game 3 with the Tar Heels leading 9-6 in the fifth and shut down the Blue Devils, allowing just one hit over three scoreless innings. He’s yet to give up an earned run in eight innings this season.

“He throws a ton of strikes,” Forbes said. “A little bit funky, too, so he hides the ball. But we’ll consider using him maybe in a starting role, if that’s something we feel like we need to do. That was big to bridge that gap when it was clear the offense was good on both teams and somebody had to stop a team. That’s what Chris did.”

By the time freshman Cannon Pickell entered Game 3 in the ninth inning, the series win was all but sealed, thanks in large part to Joyner. But that didn’t detract from the excitement surrounding Pickell’s UNC debut, as he struck out two batters and hit another in a scoreless ninth.

“We do a lot of live (batting practice), and Cannon kept getting better and kept getting better,” Forbes said. “It was a command issue in the fall, and his command has improved drastically. You have to go by what you see as a coach, and we’ve been out there on Wednesdays with the pitchers who haven’t thrown much facing hitters who haven’t hit much. Cannon just keeps climbing the chart. So he deserved that appearance.

“He’s got power stuff, so we think he can be a guy early on who can be a matchup guy or a one-inning guy for us.”

What’s next?

UNC was slated to host Charlotte on Tuesday, but the game was postponed Monday due to student-athlete welfare concerns. So the Tar Heels’ next action will be this weekend, when they visit Pittsburgh for a three-game series. First pitch of Game 1 is slated for 6 p.m. Friday.

Picked to finish last in the Coastal Division in the ACC preseason coaches poll, the Panthers (17-10, 12-9 ACC) have already set a program record for most ACC wins in a season. They’re coming off a sweep of Miami, in which they became just the second team in conference history to sweep both Florida State and the Hurricanes.