From assisting with travel arrangements to helping set the travel roster, Scott Forbes was heavily involved with many of the decisions that head coaches make this time of year in his 19 seasons as an assistant coach under Mike Fox.
For that reason, the first-year head coach said he found himself in somewhat familiar territory in making such decisions heading into the Lubbock Regional. What he’d yet to experience, though, was the thrill of making the “end call” in an NCAA Tournament game, an opportunity he eagerly awaited.
That opportunity ultimately presented itself not once, but multiple times late in North Carolina’s 5-4 win over UCLA on Friday. And Forbes pressed all the right buttons.
Heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, the third-seeded Tar Heels led the second-seeded Bruins 5-2, thanks in large part to Austin Love – who at one point retired 13 straight hitters. But after Kevin Kendall’s third hit of the night, a two-out RBI single, cut UNC’s lead to 5-3, Forbes faced the difficult decision of whether or not to remove Love. Ultimately, he chose to do so, and the decision paid off, as Caden O’Brien struck out Pat Caulfield to strand two runners.
“We talk about it and we talk about these situations before they happen, and you ultimately have to make the decision,” Forbes said. “That’s why I’m thankful I was a pitching coach so long because the decision just has to be made. It’s the toughest decision a coach or manager makes is when to make a change on the mound. But we liked that matchup better, we felt good about it. And even if they pinch hit, we felt good about who Caden would face in that situation.”
O’Brien returned to the mound to start the bottom of the eighth, but after UCLA put runners on second and third via a single and a one-out double, Forbes made another call to the bullpen. Nik Pry entered and quickly allowed a run to score via a wild pitch, but he fought back from a 2-1 count to strike out Mikey Perez. From there, a chess match ensued, as the Bruins inserted three pinch hitters around Pry and Shawn Rapp – who eventually induced a groundout to escape the jam.
Over the last few weeks, Forbes has stressed to his players the importance of playing aggressive and not putting too much pressure on themselves. That approach helped the Tar Heels reach the NCAA Tournament. It also helped them amid the flurry of pitching changes Friday.
“Everybody was just telling the guys on the mound just to trust their abilities and fall back on what they’ve been doing all year and the hard work they’ve put in,” said Danny Serretti, whose two-run home run in the top of the seventh inning proved to be the difference. “We knew they could do it, and I’m really glad that they executed.”
With the win, UNC advances to a winners bracket game against No. 8 national seed Texas Tech. The Tar Heels also extend their streak to 26 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with at least one win.
"I'll tell you what, that was a that was a team win,” Forbes said. "And that's what I'm proud of.”
Love continues dominance
For the fifth time in as many games, Love earned the win Friday, allowing three runs on six hits in 6 2/3 innings. His nine strikeouts were the most by a UNC pitcher in an NCAA tournament game since Patrick Johnson had 11 against James Madison in the 2011 Chapel Hill Regional. They also brought Love’s season total to 129, four shy of Andrew Miller’s single-season school record, set in 2006.
Love said earlier this week that he hadn’t been throwing his changeup that much recently. But the pitch was key to him throwing first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 28 batters he faced Friday.
“It was big,” he said. “I felt like it was more big early in the counts for me. And then, late in the counts, I would either use a fastball or go back to my slider, which has been so good lately. It was definitely good to have that pitch back and be able to get ahead of hitters.”
Over his last eight games (seven starts), Love has a 2.89 ERA in 53 innings. He’s averaged 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings in that span.
“Austin is the best pitcher in the country,” Serretti said. “When he’s on the mound, we’ve just got to give him the lead and we’re going to win the game. That’s pretty much what we focused on before the game. We just want to put a couple of runs up and we felt like we had a good chance to win the game.”
Stewart shines in return
After playing in 14 of the Tar Heels’ 19 games as a true freshman last season and showing some signs of promise at the plate, Will Stewart figured to be, at the very least, a valuable bat off the bench this year. His season, however, was disrupted when he suffered a hamate injury in March.
Entering Friday, Stewart had missed 38 consecutive games due to the injury, his last appearance coming on March 14 against Clemson. Although he told Forbes he was ready to return about 10 days ago, Forbes was reluctant to play Stewart since he hadn’t seen live pitching in nearly three months. But after watching Stewart take a lot of batting practice since then, Forbes started him at designated hitter against UCLA.
“This week, he got to face (pitchers) on Monday after we had the selection show,” Forbes said. “They were all 90, 90-plus (mph). So that helped him. He looked good. He hit a home run. We thought Will would have 100-150 at-bats possibly this season. He was a starter for us last year. But he kept lifting and kept working, and I just felt like, ‘Hey, he’s looked good.’ And that’s just a situation where you go with your gut.”
Forbes’ decision paid off in a big way, as Stewart went 2-for-4 with three RBIs.
"It was unbelievable to see what he was doing today,” Serretti said. “It’s really hard to do. He hasn’t seen live pithing in I don’t know how many months. He came up and it looked like he had 200 at-bats under his belt. But that’s just Will. He sees the ball, he hits it. That’s him. I’m really glad he did that and he helped us out a ton."
After starting nine pitchers not named Love throughout the season, the biggest question facing UNC upon arriving in Lubbock was who would round out its regional rotation. Forbes said after Friday’s win that the staff hadn’t settled on a starter for Saturday. He did, however, name Connor Ollio (2-2, 3.69 ERA) and Gage Gillian (1-2, 2.06 ERA) – who threw 17 pitches in the ninth Friday – as potential candidates.
“The good thing is the game isn’t until 8 p.m. central,” Forbes said. “So we’ve got plenty of time to decide. I’ll tell our pitchers tonight, it’s going to take everybody for us to win this regional. It might be something that we haven’t done in the past – we’ll announce a starter, but whoever it is, we’ll go with our eyes and it won’t be your traditional starter. We’re not going to expect to get five or six innings out of them.”
Forbes also all but ruled out the possibility of using Love out of the bullpen this weekend after he threw 95 pitches on Friday.
“He will beg me, because of who he is, if something happens and it’s extended to Monday,” he said. “But I’m not going to do it. I feel like we’ve got some guys who can get it done. And when you’re going to win a regional or a super regional or a national championship, most of the time somebody who has not done a lot, like Will Stewart did for us tonight, has to do something. Somebody steps up and all of a sudden they give you some more innings.
“But they’ll all be available – O’Brien, Pry, Rapp, Gillian. I feel pretty good about keeping their pitch counts down, and we plan on using them every game the rest of the way.”
The Tar Heels will face Texas Tech at 9 p.m. Saturday. The Red Raiders (37-15) advanced to the winners bracket with a 6-3 win over No. 4 regional seed Army on Friday.
Texas Tech is one of the country’s best offensive teams, and entered Friday ranked in the top 15 nationally in walks (sixth, 309), home runs per game (seventh, 1.63), slugging percentage (ninth, .501), home runs (10th, 83), scoring (14th, 7.8 runs per game) and on-base percentage (15th, .403). The Red Raiders also possess the regional’s best rotation. Lefty Patrick Monteverde (6-3, 3.61 ERA), the team’s Friday starter the last two months, figures to receive the start against UNC after Chase Hampton started Friday.
“I'm really close with (Texas Tech assistant coach) J-Bob (Thomas),” Forbes said. “I've known him a long time, a lot of respect for the program, way back when he was at a junior college and I'd come down to Texas and try to steal a couple of Texas kids at those JUCOs when I first got to UNC. They have a ton of tradition like we do. They play really well at home. They're well-coached. They have a tough team. So, we’ll have our work cut out for us. But this is why you do it.
“The challenges are, obviously, they're balanced throughout the lineup. They've got some superstar power. And they've got a lot of strike throwers on the mound – which is why they’re a national seed. So we're looking forward to competing against them.”