UNC Veterans Step Up in Extra-Inning Win Over South Carolina

The Tar Heels continued their dominance over the Gamecocks in Charlotte

As Scott Forbes chatted with his North Carolina coaching staff Tuesday ahead of UNC’s game against South Carolina at Truist Field, the topic of the Tar Heels’ most consistent hitter came up.

The staff could’ve easily been referring to Justice Thompson – the Tar Heels’ leader in batting average and hits – or even Angel Zarate – who just recently saw a 39-game on-base streak end. Instead, they were discussing Caleb Roberts, the redshirt sophomore in the midst of a career year.

Given their earlier conversation, there was likely no one else who the coaches would have rather seen coming to the plate that evening with UNC and the Gamecocks tied at 2 in the 10th inning.

With no outs and runners on first and second, Roberts took back-to-back curveballs from South Carolina lefty Julian Bosnic for strikes. He didn’t let a third one by him, though, sending the next pitch into center field for a single that scored Zarate from second.

“After I was down 0-2, I just reacted and stayed in there on a curveball,” said Roberts after the 3-2 win over the ninth-ranked Gamecocks (19-8). “I didn’t try to do too much with it. Just barreled it up and found a hole.”

Roberts’ RBI single handed the Tar Heels (15-12) their first extra-inning win of the season, as well as their ninth victory over a ranked opponent. It also fittingly capped a game in which UNC’s veterans came up huge.

After Sunday’s disappointing 8-0 loss at Florida State, Forbes said the team’s older players – specifically Zarate, Thompson and Danny Serretti – needed to be “flat out better.” Zarate and Thompson responded to their coach’s message in the first inning Tuesday, opening the game with a triple and a single, respectively, to put the Tar Heels up 1-0.

Zarate, Thompson and Roberts ultimately finished a combined 7-for-13 with three runs scored, two RBIs and two walks. Serretti and redshirt senior Dallas Tessar each chipped in with a single, the team’s only other hits of the night.

“We challenged them a little bit,” Forbes said. “We don’t want to say this too often, but sometimes you’ve gotta look yourself in the mirror and you just have to play better. With the group we have, the older guys, some of the reasons sometimes they struggle is they want to win, they want to help our team win. So, I’ve talked to them about that. And those guys, they showed up, they competed and they led us.”

Danny’s dazzling defense

Although Serretti (.190/.286/.419, five home runs, 19 RBIs) has been up and down at the plate, Forbes has stuck with the redshirt sophomore shortstop, starting him in all 27 games in large part because of his consistent defense.

That hasn’t been more evident than it was Tuesday.

The first of Serretti’s defensive gems was also the most spectacular, as he ranged into left field to make a diving over-the-shoulder grab in the second inning. Three innings later, he snagged a low liner and made a strong throw across the diamond to double up the runner at first base. Then, in the eighth, he made a diving play to his left to record the second out before putting the finishing touches on his defensive display with a leaping catch that robbed Wes Clarke of a hit.

“He knows what it takes to play at this level at shortstop, and just having him up the middle is always reassuring,” said Roberts of Serretti. “He always makes big plays. And even if he’s not at his best at the plate, we know what we’re going to get out of him every single game at shortstop. To have him there is very valuable.”

Buoyed by the bullpen

For the sixth time in the last seven games, UNC’s starting pitcher tossed fewer than three innings, as redshirt freshman Max Alba surrendered one run while walking two batters and hitting another over 1 1/3. Once again, though, the bullpen stepped up, giving up one run across 8 2/3 innings.

Redshirt juniors Gage Gillian and Caden O’Brien were particularly impressive, combining to allow two hits over 5 2/3 scoreless innings. Gillian – who missed the first three weeks of the season because of a preseason groin injury – is now up to 13 scoreless innings on the year. His emergence, along with O’Brien’s steady contributions, has solidified the UNC 'pen.

Over the last 10 games, UNC relievers have posted a 2.95 ERA in 61 innings.

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Count confusion

Forbes showed as much frustration with an umpiring crew as he has all season when Thompson was called out on strikes for the final out in the top of the fifth inning.

The call, as it turned out, was correct. But according to Forbes, the scoreboard showed the count at 3-1 before the strikeout pitch, which is the same count that home plate umpire Kevin Sweeney relayed to Thompson when the center fielder requested it. So, Forbes – who himself thought the count was 2-2 – was understandably upset.

“I had to breathe out my nose, No. 1. And in my nose. …” he said. “They’re allowed to go back to the scorebook and check the count. It was just a mistake by the umpire. As mad as I was, there’s not much I could do about it except be mad, I guess.”

Thriving under the bright lights 

With Tuesday’s win, the Tar Heels improved to 36-13 in all games played in professional baseball stadiums since 2011. They've outscored opponents 353-172 in those games, 28 of which have been held at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

No professional venue, however, has been as friendly to UNC as Truist Field, formerly known as BB&T Ballpark. Since 2016, the Tar Heels are 5-1 at the facility, home of the Charlotte Knights. Four of those victories have come against South Carolina by a combined score of 51-15.

“This was a big game,” Roberts said. “Playing in Charlotte, in a Minor League stadium, it was a really good environment for us. It was a good test to go up against South Carolina. They have a really good team. And it shows a lot about our entire team after this past weekend, bouncing back and coming out with something to prove. Very big win.”

What’s next?

UNC returns to Boshamer Stadium for a four-game homestand, beginning with a three-game series against Duke. First pitch of Game 1 is slated for 6 p.m. Friday.

Picked to finish fourth in the Coastal Division in the ACC preseason coaches poll, the Blue Devils (12-13, 5-10 ACC) are coming off a 12-7 win over NC Central on Tuesday. They’ve dropped three straight ACC series.