UNC Battles, Falls Short at Florida State

The Tar Heels couldn't capitalize on their Friday night win

As Caden O’Brien strutted around the Dick Howser Stadium pitcher’s mound Friday evening, flexing his arms and screaming at the top of his lungs after yet another strikeout, it felt as if North Carolina might finally be back on track.

After winning back-to-back ACC series and dominating ECU in the first of two meetings, UNC limped into its series opener at No. 18 Florida State on a four-game losing streak. Things didn’t seem like they’d get any easier going against one of the ACC’s best arms in Parker Messick. But that didn’t deter the Tar Heels.

Behind seven strong innings from Austin Love, a ninth-inning RBI single by Justice Thompson and a sensational performance by O’Brien in which he struck out the last four Seminole hitters, UNC put together one of its best games of the season in a 4-3 win.

By the time head coach Scott Forbes spoke to reporters Sunday afternoon, though, that game felt like a rather distant memory.

The Tar Heels put forth another strong effort Saturday, only to lose 4-2 on a walk-off two-run home run in the ninth inning. That was then followed by a disappointing showing in Game 3, in which Florida State scored four runs in the first and never looked back on its way to an 8-0 win.

“I really don't have much to say, to be honest with you,” said Forbes after his team was shut out for the first time this season. “We couldn't throw strikes and we just had bad at-bats, especially after they hit the home run (to go up 4-0). … I thought for the first time all year, except for a couple (of players), they didn't compete in the box, which is a big standard of ours. And that's something I'm going to need to make sure I do a better job of not letting that happen.”

Just past the halfway point of the regular season, UNC sits at 14-12 overall and 9-9 in ACC play, just two games out of first place in the Coastal Division.

After jumping to No. 25 in WarrenNolan.com's RPI rankings with their 8-1 win over ECU on March 23, the Tar Heels are currently at No. 58. They’ll have several chances to move up those rankings with 11 games against Quadrant 1 opponents between now and May 2.

"I think we’re starting to find out a little bit more about our team,” Forbes said. “It was a really tough stretch. We didn’t get as many wins as we would’ve liked to. But at the end of the day, we’re right there in the thick of the ACC race, and we have a chance. Our guys just have to build off that and keep working.”

Learning to claw back

Three times in the last seven games, UNC has fallen behind by five or more runs in the first two innings. The Tar Heels haven’t pulled any closer than four runs in those games, and Forbes said that’s something his team must get better at.

“Baseball is a crazy game,” he said. “You’re down 4-0, 5-0, chip away and next thing you know it’s 5-3, 5-4, and the other team can get a little bit tighter. And we haven’t done that well. That’s on me, and I’ll work hard to try to improve that this week.”

Freshmen step up

One of the impressive moments of the weekend came in the fifth inning of Friday’s game, when a trio of freshmen produced UNC’s first run.

The sequence started with a one-out double by Johnny Castagnozzi – making his first career start at first base – and continued with a single by Mac Horvath in the ensuing at-bat. With runners on the corners, Colby Wilkerson perfectly executed a safety squeeze to score Castagnozzi.

"Yeah, that was really good for us,” said redshirt sophomore right fielder Caleb Roberts. “Me, in particular, I didn't really do much on Friday (going 0-for-4), so to have them step up is a really good sign for the rest of the season. Once we're able to have good at-bats one through nine, then we have a really good offense.”

Gillian’s great game

A week removed from pitching 4 1/3 scoreless innings in all three games of the N.C. State series, redshirt junior Gage Gillian built on that performance Saturday against the Seminoles.

After replacing starter Max Alba with one out in the bottom of the third inning, Gillian tossed a career-high 4 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, allowing just two hits and striking out a career-high seven batters. The outing was the longest by a Tar Heel reliever against an ACC opponent since Love went 6 1/3 against Miami in the 2019 ACC Tournament.

Gillian, who transferred to UNC from Walters State Community College before the 2020 season, hasn’t allowed a run in 10 1/3 innings this season. The right-hander didn’t make his 2021 debut until March 16 at Liberty because of a preseason groin injury, but he’s quickly cemented himself as a reliable option out of the bullpen.

“Probably the last week and a half he’s started to look like he did late in the fall; he was one of our better guys,” Forbes said. “We thought this guy might be our closer. So, it will give us some options.”

Pitching options

With Alba and freshman Max Carlson combining to pitch three innings against Florida State, pitchers not named Love have started five of the Tar Heels’ last seven games and have gone just 6 2/3 innings. The longest of those starts has been 2 1/3 innings.

Combine that with the emergences of Gillian and redshirt junior Chris Joyner – who threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings of relief Sunday – in the wake of a season-ending surgery for Joey Lancellotti, and the staff could elect to shake up the rotation.  

“To see Gage do that, Chris Joyner threw great today, to see some guys improve with the loss of (Lancellotti),” Forbes said, “that’s really going to help us if we can get another starter besides Austin Love to pitch better for us and pitch deeper.”

Forbes specifically mentioned the possibility of stretching out O’Brien – who has made four career starts – and putting Gillian in the back of the bullpen.

What’s next?

UNC will travel to Charlotte on Tuesday to face No. 14 South Carolina at Truist Field. First pitch is set for 7 p.m.

Picked to finish fourth in the Eastern Division in the SEC preseason coaches poll, the Gamecocks (19-7, 6-3 SEC) are fresh off a road series win over Georgia.