For as much as he’s talked about his team’s toughness, head coach Scott Forbes recognized after North Carolina’s sweep to N.C. State on Monday that Tuesday’s visit to No. 8 ECU would be the biggest test of that trait yet.
That made it all that more impressive when the No. 21 Tar Heels jumped out to a 4-0 first-inning lead over the Pirates, as well as when they scored four straight runs to take a 10-6 edge into the eighth inning. Unfortunately for UNC, though, that wasn’t enough, as ECU hit two two-run homers in the eighth and a walk-off single in the ninth to steal an 11-10 win.
"I was proud of the fight our guys showed on the road,” Forbes said. “Punches were thrown back and forth. I thought we jumped on them early. I thought our guys were ready to play, I thought they had the right response to losing that home series to N.C. State and against a good East Carolina team. We just couldn’t hold them off, and we just didn’t get it done on the bump.”
After struggling mightily on the mound against N.C. State, the Tar Heels’ pitching problems continued Tuesday. Even with many pitchers unavailable coming off the weekend series, UNC (13-10) still used seven, who allowed 11 runs on 18 hits.
For the longest time, it appeared as if the Tar Heels might survive that, registering season highs in runs (10), hits (13) and home runs (4) at the plate. But ECU (18-5) captured the momentum in the eighth inning and never looked back en route to avenging last week’s loss to UNC in Chapel Hill.
“The season is going to keep going,” said Forbes after his team’s fourth consecutive defeat. “You can be upset, like our guys should be, because they left it all out on the field. I have no complaints. Their effort was outstanding, they competed. When you have that lead in the eighth and you can’t hold on to it, that’s tough. That’s tough on the whole team. But we win as a team and we lose as a team. We’ll pick each other up and we’ll just keep plugging right along.”
An unexpected appearance
Three days removed from throwing 35 pitches in two-plus inning in his start against N.C. State, redshirt freshman Max Alba made his first relief appearance of 2021 against the Pirates.
While Tuesday would’ve been a bullpen day for the Tar Heels’ usual Sunday starter, Forbes said the staff opted to use Alba out of the 'pen after nine relievers pitched 19 2/3 total innings over the weekend and three pitchers were needed to get through the first six innings Tuesday. Even more importantly, the staff hoped the outing could help Alba fine-tune some things.
“He needed to pitch, period, just to get back out there and try to figure out things and improve,” Forbes said. “So, it wasn’t even that it was his bullpen day. It was just he needed to pitch.”
Upon entering the game in the seventh, Alba allowed a single, but retired the next three batters to end the inning. Then, in the eighth, he induced a groundout before giving up a double and the first of ECU’s two eighth-inning homers, bringing his appearance to an end after 26 pitches.
Starting right fielder Caleb Roberts paced UNC offensively, going 3-for-3 with a home run, a double, two walks and three RBIs. With his fourth career three-hit effort, the redshirt sophomore extended his career-best hitting streak to seven games, during which he’s 12-for-26.
After Roberts posted two strong games against James Madison to open the year, pitchers started feeding him a steady diet of off-speed pitches. Adjusting to their adjustments, he said, has been a challenge in what’s been the longest stretch of his career hitting in the heart of the Tar Heel order. But he’s making strides.
“It’s been tough adjusting to how pitchers pitch to me,” he said. “Just had to shrink the zone and what I’m looking at. Earlier in the season, I was chasing at a lot of off-speed pitches, so the past few weeks I’ve just been trying to focus on getting pitches that are over the plate and easy to hit and just getting into good counts, and then good things will happen.”
In addition to his success at the plate, Roberts threw out an ECU runner trying to advance from first to third on a sixth-inning single, giving him three outfield assists this season.
Castagnozzi’s career night
Another bright spot for the Tar Heels, freshman Johnny Castagnozzi recorded a career-best three hits Tuesday, highlighted by a two-run double in the first inning. The second baseman is looking more comfortable at the plate as of late, going 6-for-17 with six RBIs in his last six games.
“He’s a talented kid who plays great defense for us,” Forbes said. “He had an injury in pregame (Saturday) … and had to miss the last two games. But he was able to fight through it and get back out there tonight. He had a great response.”
UNC heads to Tallahassee, Florida, this weekend to face No. 18 Florida State in a three-game ACC series. Game 1 is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at Dick Howser Stadium.
Picked to finish third in the Atlantic Division in the ACC preseason coaches poll, the Seminoles (12-8, 8-7 ACC) dropped two of three home games against Wake Forest last weekend. They’re an impressive 8-2 against teams in the Baseball America Top 25.