Justice Thompson’s throw had just reached the cutoff man when Scott Forbes exited the home dugout, not wanting to waste any time with his decision.
With his team already trailing 3-0 in the second inning of Monday’s series finale against N.C. State, the North Carolina first-year head coach marched to the mound to remove starter Will Sandy. Perhaps if this was his first time making such an early pitching change during the series, he would’ve bided his time and allowed Nik Pry a few more warmup throws.
But, unfortunately for the Tar Heels, it wasn’t.
Sandy’s early exit meant for the third time in as many games against the Wolfpack, UNC’s starter didn’t pitch past the fourth inning. And as was the case the first two times, that proved to be an obstacle the Tar Heels couldn’t overcome in an 8-3 loss that handed N.C. State the series sweep.
“You guys know the game of baseball, if you don't get starting pitching and you're behind, it's hard to climb out of it,” Forbes said. “Got to give N.C. State all the credit. They had not been playing up to what they were capable of and they came in here and they just whipped our tails. And they were the better team, all three games.”
The Wolfpack (8-9, 4-8 ACC) unexpectedly set the tone for the series Friday against UNC ace Austin Love. After giving up only nine runs (eight earned) in his first five starts, the right-hander surrendered eight (seven earned) in four innings against N.C. State, with five coming via two home runs.
Things didn’t get any easier for the Tar Heels (13-9, 8-7 ACC) from there, as Max Alba gave up three runs (two earned) over two-plus innings Saturday before Sandy surrendered five (four earned) in 1 1/3 innings Monday.
Overall, UNC’s starters combined to allow 16 runs (13 earned) over 7 1/3 innings.
“I thought we were kind of shocked when Austin got hit a little bit,” Forbes said. “I talked to our guys about it, but it didn't seem like we recovered enough. And at the end of day, we just needed one guy to go out there and give us a good start, and it didn't happen. And when you get a little bit fragile in the game of baseball, that's what you need.”
The Tar Heels didn’t get much from their offense either, scoring six total runs on 19 hits. But Forbes said falling behind in all three games impacted his team’s approach at the plate.
“I didn’t think we fought like we were capable of because we were behind,” he said. “And that was disappointing, something hopefully we can improve on and learn from because we’re going to be behind again.”
That very well could be the case at some point Tuesday, when UNC travels to Greenville, North Carolina, for a rematch with No. 8 ECU. If not then, perhaps when the Tar Heels visit No. 18 Florida State this weekend.
“It’s a long season,” Forbes said. “If you let this sweep define you, it will. If you buy into what we talk about every single day about the season being a marathon, not a sprint and being process oriented, you'll learn from it and just, 'Hey, it's a new game tomorrow. You’ve gotta go out and play.’ It's the great thing about baseball, you don't have to wait a week.”
Coming off a shortened 2020 season in which their defense was among their biggest weaknesses, the Tar Heels placed a strong emphasis on improving in the field this past offseason. Through 19 games, they clearly had, ranking 16th nationally in fielding percentage (.983) entering Friday. Then they committed seven errors against the Wolfpack.
UNC made a season-high three errors in Game 1, then matched that total in Game 2. It had only one error in Game 3, an off-target throw to third base by Pry. But it proved costly, allowing two runs to score.
“We've been so good defensively,” Forbes said. “Some of it might’ve been State's team speed making us rush a little bit, but I still thought they were plays that we've been making in our sleep. … I know we didn’t score as many runs as we wanted to, but that’s still what you have to be able to do day in and day out. And that’s how we’ve been successful this season.”
Stokely flashes power
One of the few bright spots for the Tar Heels, freshman first baseman/outfielder Brandon Stokely entered Game 1 as a seventh-inning pinch-hitter and crushed the first home run of his career two innings later. According to UNC’s analytics team, the 439-foot blast was the second longest by a Tar Heel since 2015, as far back as game data is available.
Three days later, making his first career start at first base, Stokely followed that up by hitting his second home run, a 377-foot shot that left his bat at 100 mph with a 35-degree launch angle.
“Hunter has an unbelievable attitude,” Forbes said. “He’s young and he's really progressed in the last two months. He’s improved his body, gotten quicker and worked on his defense. He's got length to his swing, so he can stay through the zone. It's kind of hard to strike him out in consecutive at-bats because he's a pretty smart hitter and he's got that raw power."
Stokely is 4-for-10 with two home runs and a double to start his career. He’s recorded a hit in all four games he’s played in, with more at-bats potentially on the horizon.
“It was his time, it was his opportunity, because some guys have struggled,” Forbes said. “And there comes a time where if a guy has looked good in practice and looked good in (batting practice), he deserves the opportunity. And he made the most of it, for sure.”
Forced to turn to their bullpen early and often in all three games, the Tar Heels received some notable performances from their relievers, who combined for a 1.83 ERA over 19 2/3 innings.
The most impressive of the bunch was redshirt junior Gage Gillian, who became the first UNC pitcher to pitch at least one inning in all three games of a series since Brett Daniels did so against Wake Forest the weekend of March 30, 2018. Gillian allowed just one hit across 4 1/3 scoreless innings, and has emerged as a reliable option since making his first appearance of the season on March 16 at Liberty.
Speaking of first appearances, redshirt juniors Chris Joyner and Michael Oh made theirs against the Wolfpack. Joyner appeared in Games 1 and 2, surrendering one hit and an unearned run while striking out two batters in 1 1/3 innings. Oh pitched in Games 1 and 3, and although he gave up a two-run homer Monday, his stuff looked good in 3 2/3 total innings.
Lastly, redshirt freshman Shawn Rapp turned in arguably his best outing of the season in Game 2, allowing two hits and striking out a career-high four batters over 2 2/3 scoreless innings.
“Our bullpen was good this weekend, for the most part,” Forbes said, “and we need our bullpen to be good.”
The Tar Heels face a short turnaround as they will visit No. 8 ECU on Tuesday. First pitch is slated for 6:30 p.m.
After losing 8-1 to UNC in Chapel Hill last Tuesday, the Pirates, the preseason favorites in the American Athletic Conference, split a pair of games at Elon over the weekend.