UNC Drops Georgia Tech Series, Enters ACC Tournament as No. 6 Seed

Tar Heels play No. 10 seed Pittsburgh on Tuesday

Coming off a weekend sweep at the hands of Notre Dame, North Carolina entered the final three weeks of the regular season a game under .500 and with its postseason hopes rapidly dwindling.

But even after going 1-2 at Georgia Tech โ€“ winning 3-2 Thursday before falling 10-9 Friday and 10-6 Sunday โ€“ UNC (26-24, 18-18 ACC) not only finds itself on the inside track for an NCAA Tournament berth, but as the No. 6 seed in the ACC Tournament.

The Tar Heels, one of eight ACC teams to finish .500 or better in league play, will likely all but cement their place in the NCAA Tournament with one ACC Tournament win. Playing in Pool C, theyโ€™ll face No. 10 seed Pittsburgh on Tuesday and No. 3 seed N.C. State on Friday. The four teams with the best records in their respective pools will advance to Saturdayโ€™s semifinals, with the winners playing Sunday in the ACC Championship Game.

A lot to Love

Entering the series opener against Louisville on May 14, UNC pitchers had thrown two complete games in the previous 1,862 days. That made it all the more impressive when Austin Love went the distance Thursday, six days after tossing a complete game against the Cardinals.

Georgia Tech struck early against the right-hander, scoring two runs on Kevin Paradaโ€™s two-out, third-inning single. Love, however, didnโ€™t allow a runner to advance past second base the rest of the way, and on his 129th pitch, he pumped a 97 mph fastball past Brad Grenkoski for his 15th strikeout โ€“ the most by a Tar Heel since Gianluca Dalatri had 15 against Radford on Feb. 26, 2017. They were the most by a UNC pitcher against an ACC opponent since Matt Harvey had 15 at Clemson on April 23, 2010.

Loveโ€™s 89 2/3 innings on the season are the second most among Power 5 pitchers, while his 111 strikeouts are the fifth most. Heโ€™s 10th in the ACC in ERA (3.51) and sixth in batting average against (.216).

Pitching progress needed

The rest of the Tar Heelsโ€™ pitching staff couldnโ€™t build on Loveโ€™s start, as 11 pitchers combined to allow 20 earned runs on 29 hits Friday and Saturday.

Outside of Love, 10 active UNC pitchers have logged double-digit innings this season. Gage Gillian (1.65) and Connor Ollio (3.56) are the only ones with an ERA under 4.30. Caden Oโ€™Brien found himself among that group for most of the year, posting a 2.70 ERA in his first 20 innings. But the lefty hasnโ€™t been himself since returning from a six-game absence due to COVID-19 protocols, tallying a 7.90 ERA in 13 2/3 innings.

As much as the Tar Heels need Oโ€™Brien to return to form and Shawn Rapp โ€“ who has a 5.63 ERA despite a few superb outings โ€“ to show a bit more consistency, at least two other pitchers will have to step up for UNC to make any sort of postseason run.

Castagnozzi catching fire

Given how good Johnny Castagnozzi, Mikey Madej and Colby Wilkerson each are defensively, whoever has the hottest bat has tended to start at second base. As of late, thatโ€™s primarily been Castagnozzi โ€“ who, after putting together a few solid at-bats in recent weeks, busted out against the Yellow Jackets.

Castagnozzi finished the weekend 3-for-8 with two home runs โ€“ including a solo shot that tied Thursdayโ€™s game at 2 in the fifth inning. He also tallied five RBIs, two more than heโ€™d registered in any other series.

With a hit in all three games, the freshman extended his hitting streak to six games, the longest of his short career. Heโ€™s also now recorded a hit in nine of his last 10 games, a stretch in which heโ€™s slashing .375/.429/.667.

Whatโ€™s next?

The Tar Heels travel to Charlotteโ€™s Truist Field for the ACC Tournament, where theyโ€™ll open pool play at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Pittsburgh. UNC dropped two of three games against the Panthers in April, but theyโ€™re 2-8 since then.