UNC Pitching Impresses Early, Falters Late in Loss to Texas Tech

The Tar Heels face UCLA in a Lubbock Regional elimination game Sunday

For seven-plus innings Saturday night, North Carolina received as good a pitching performance as it could’ve asked for, with three pitchers combining to hold Texas Tech’s explosive offense to four runs on just six hits.

The Red Raiders, however, erupted for three runs in the eighth inning to turn a competitive game into a comfortable 7-2 victory. And now the Tar Heels find themselves in desperate need of more arms to step up heading into a Lubbock Regional elimination game Sunday against UCLA.

“I told them at the end of the game I have nothing negative to say to our team,” head coach Scott Forbes said. “They’ve fought like this all year when a lot of people haven’t believed in them, but we’ve believed in them and they’ve believed in themselves. That’s why we’re here. And they competed the whole game, and as a coach, that’s all you ask at this point in the season, is to leave it all out there. And we did that. Sometimes you do that and you don’t get a bounce here or there.

“Caden (O’Brien) walked a couple of those guys (in the eighth), but even Caden was aggressive. He just didn’t make the pitches when he needed to. But I thought every pitcher who threw today attacked and didn’t hold anything back.”

Things didn’t look promising for the staff early on, as Gage Gillian, making his first start in 71 career games at UNC and Walters State Community College, surrendered a two-run home run to the third batter he faced – Big 12 Player of the Year Jace Jung. Gillian settled in after that, though, striking out three of the next seven batters he faced before handing the ball to Shawn Rapp.

Rapp was phenomenal across 4 2/3 innings of relief, allowing only two hits and collecting seven strikeouts against one walk. The two hits, however, were an RBI double by Braxton Fulford and a solo homer by Kurt Wilson that turned a tie game into a 4-2 Texas Tech lead. That remained the score until the Red Raiders broke things open in the eighth.

Even then, for a team with several question marks surrounding its pitching beyond Austin Love, the Tar Heels did enough on the mound for most of Saturday’s game to beat the No. 8 national seed.

“We approached it the same way we’ve been approaching a lot of games coming down the stretch here,” Rapp said. “Every game is the playoffs, every game is a must-win. We’ve got to show our best face every game. And I thought we played a great game. It just wasn’t enough tonight.”

UNC now has to win three games in two days – including two Sunday – to reach super regionals. Forbes said Rapp will “definitely not” be available to pitch Sunday after he threw 68 pitches, but Forbes didn’t rule out the possibility of Gillian – who tossed 17 pitches in Friday’s win over the Bruins and 42 Saturday – pitching an inning.

Forbes said Connor Ollio (2-2, 3.69 ERA) will likely start against UCLA, and the Tar Heels hope the third-year sophomore can rise to the challenge and help extend their season.

“You can’t look at it as, ‘Hey, we have to win two games,’” Forbes said. “You have to try to win the game that you’re currently playing. So, we’ll put all of our effort on UCLA, who has a heck of a team. And we’re going to have to play really, really well to have an opportunity to play Texas Tech again.”

Rapp delivers

Coming off an incredible first career start against Miami on April 23, it seemed as if Rapp might be the answer to UNC’s drawn-out search for a second starter. Over his next four starts, though, he posted a 10.03 ERA in 11 2/3 innings, prompting a return to the bullpen.

That move has paid dividends for the Tar Heels this postseason, as Rapp has appeared in all four games, allowing three runs and three hits in 8 1/3 innings. He’s struck out 12 batters and walked two in that span. Saturday’s outing was particularly noteworthy, as his seven strikeouts were the most by a UNC reliever in a postseason game since Trent Thornton tallied seven in the 18-inning marathon against N.C. State in the 2013 ACC Tournament.

“I think just coming in and having confidence in my stuff,” said Rapp when asked about what led to his success against Texas Tech. “I’ve had a good stretch here in the postseason, and just being able to be confident in any pitch called in any situation. But there were definitely some pitches I need to be better at. … I just need to be better.”

A momentum killer

Down 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Tar Heels seemed poised to score at least one run after Caleb Roberts drew a leadoff walk and Mac Horvath crushed a ball to left field. The ball hit the yellow line at the top of the wall, just inches away from being a two-run homer, and the Red Raiders threw out Horvath at second base.

An umpire review confirmed that Horvath’s ball wasn’t a home run. Forbes then issued a coach’s challenge to see if Horvath avoided the tag at second, but the questionable call was upheld.

“I thought maybe he avoided that tag,” Forbes said. “The first challenge was not my challenge. That was the umpire’s because it was so close. I just decided, ‘Hey, why not? Maybe Mac swam-move that tag.’ So I used one.”

Because of how hard the ball hit the wall and where Roberts was when Wilson, the left fielder, corralled it, Forbes said he didn’t really consider sending Roberts home on the play, especially since there were no outs. But after Horvath was called out, stud reliever Ryan Sublette entered and struck out Brett Centracchio and Justice Thompson to strand Roberts at third.

“When Mac hit that ball, I think if that ball gets out of there, gets over and is a home run, it might change the game and give us a little more momentum,” Forbes said. “But it didn’t.”

Bottom of the order struggles

Thompson’s fourth-inning infield single proved to be the only hit in 14 at-bats by UNC’s 6-7-8-9 hitters Saturday. Through two regional games, they’re 3-for-29 with two walks.

“It wasn’t our last game, and we get an opportunity to wake up tomorrow and play again, and that’s always a gift and a blessing,” Forbes said. “Our guys will get some good sleep tonight and we’ll strap it back on and get back out there. I tell them all the time, ‘Anything can flip. You can be struggling and all of a sudden you get a big knocks and you’re not struggling.’ So we’ll just stay with it.”

What’s next?

The Tar Heels face a quick turnaround, with Sunday’s elimination game against UCLA set for 3 p.m. UNC defeated the Bruins, 5-4, on Friday. John Savage’s team eliminated Army with a 13-6 win on Saturday afternoon. Should the Tar Heels win, they’ll play Texas Tech at 7 p.m. to force a winner-take-all game on Monday.

“You can’t give either one of these teams extra outs,” Forbes said. “And I think what you’re seeing are two teams that are older, that are veteran and that have deep pitching staffs, and that’s why they were so highly thought of to start the season. You’ve got two teams that were in the preseason top five. And UCLA, they’re balanced. But anytime you beat a team, that’s all you need to tell your team is, ‘Hey, we beat them once, we can beat them twice.’ 

“Even though we don’t have Love, we do need to score more runs when we have those opportunities. Because when you don’t have your horse, you can’t give up those opportunities to get that extra run. So that will be my biggest message tomorrow is, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta manufacture more runs when we get (runners) in scoring position.’”