On a rainy weekend, North Carolina left Raleigh with two crucial wins in the final weeks of the regular season. Game 1 was rescheduled for Saturday midway through the fifth inning while Games 2 and 3 were played as a double header on Sunday.
The Tar Heels (27-18, 10-14 ACC) showed resilience and a fight on the short trip back to Chapel Hill with wins booked over NC State – 8-7, 2-9 and 7-6. UNC entered the weekend sitting on the wrong side of the ACC standings with an 8-13 record that sat them with the 13th overall record in the conference. The top 12 teams qualify for the ACC Tournament.
The series win was more crucial than ever as the two wins improved UNC’s conference standing to 12th place as it sits half a game ahead of Clemson for the tournament’s final berth.
“I told them you know what the deal is, it would be a matter of toughness today,” head coach Scott Forbes said. “You have a doubleheader. We already had to fight for half a game and then finish a game and win by one point. I said we’re on the road, we’ve been in these tough games so it’s just going to be a matter of tenacity for this next game and a few guys really need to step in.
It was by no means a perfect weekend for the Forbes team, but once the dust settled they picked up their first series win since March 20, when they stole two from Duke at Durham .
“Amazing, yeah,” Davis Palermo said of the series win. “Awesome. to come here and win the series.”
Stoke the fire
When the first match resumed on Saturday, the match was tied at one apiece. UNC picked up a run in the top of the fifth and the Wolfpack responded with two runs in the bottom half to lead, 3-2, going into the sixth inning.
The Tar Heels needed a big hit at bat to regain momentum on their side and start the series on the right foot; something they haven’t been able to do since winning Game 1 of the series against Louisville on April 8. And at the plate came first baseman Hunter Stokely, who was coming off back-to-back no-hitters.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound corner fielder took a hanging slider and undoubtedly sent a three-run homer to power a five-run sixth to give the Tar Heels a 7-3 lead. It was his second home run of the season and the fourth of his UNC career.
Stokely finished the weekend 4 for 12 with 4 RBIs and two extra hits. It’s the third time in a series this season (Coastal Carolina, Georgia Tech) that he’s beaten four runners.
Resilience and combat
The first match lasted 21 hours. Finishing a game after an interruption like that is resilience in itself. But giving up three leads in a game – two one-point leads and a four-point lead – and finding a way to win is about resilience and a fight.
Max Riemer had a pinch walk in the top of the 9th inning of Game 1 with the score tied at 7 after State scored four runs late in the sixth.
Small ball followed. Reece Holbrook ran for Riemer. Vance Honeycutt laid down a sacrificial bunt to move Holbrook to second overall. Angel Zarate drove a single to right field to move Holbrook to third, then Mac Horvath hit a sacrificial fly to score Holbrook and give UNC the run total needed to escape Game 1 with a win.
“Coach Forbes preached to the entire team, stick to your routine and that the toughest team is going to win and the team that faces all the adversity that comes with this weekend is going to win” , explained shortstop Danny Serretti. “I just stuck with the approach, didn’t change anything, trusted what I had, like all those guys too.”
Fast forward to Game 3 and UNC found itself in a similar situation, except instead of the series opener on the line, the series was on the line, and potentially the season.
UNC led, 2-0. State led, 4-2. UNC Witness, 5-4. State led, 6-5.
And then Alberto Osuna stepped in with Holbrook at first base. He trailed 0-2 but tossed a fly ball over the left field wall to provide the final lead change of the weekend. Davis Palermo threw two near-flawless innings — four strikeouts, one hit, one walk — to earn his third save of the season.
“Berto with a huge bat swing,” Palermo said after the series win. “And I don’t mean we believed the whole time that we were going to win this game, but it was definitely the moment where it’s like, okay, let’s go. Now we just have to go get it .
Earlier in the day, UNC let State control the entire game in a 9-2 loss. But in the series decider, Osuna and the Tar Heels came out on top.
Gillian and Palermo Get It Done
Much of UNC’s struggles in conference play are down to their throwing. A staff that was dominating to open the season began to miss the strike zone and give up home run after home run, allowing the third-most home runs in the ACC (63).
But in Raleigh this weekend, four runs on the mound was the difference between improving his conference standings and nearly solidifying the postseason absence.
Gage Gillian was called to put his foot on the rubber in the bottom of the eighth inning with the opener tied, 7-7. He faced six batters – struck out two, allowed one hit and had three ground balls, including a double play, to earn his second win of the season.
Palermo were called in the bottom of the eighth of the series final with a one-point lead. The game was in his hands after the Wolfpack regained two leads earlier in the game. He stopped the red bats in an almost dominating display.
“It was huge. They kept us in the game,” Osuna said. “They kept fighting. We also feed off the energy of our home plate pitchers. You can see how hard they fight. We want to fight just as much. I think it was huge what they did.
UNC is hosting two midweek games at Boshamer Stadium against Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern. Next is the penultimate conference series of the season against Wake Forest (33-14-1, 11-12-1 ACC).
* Vance Honeycutt was 3 for 9 with two home runs and four RBIs. He hit the cleanup for the first time in his career and hit a two-run homer in his first plate appearance in fourth place.
* Danny Serretti extended his hitting streak to 19 games.
* This weekend marked the first season UNC won weekend playoffs against NC State, Duke and East Carolina.
* This was Forbes’ first series win over NC State as UNC head coach. “The way I grew up in an NC State family, I didn’t know my dad would have so many Carolina blues and be the happiest guy in the whole stadium. It was cool for me after that game, it was cool,” Forbes said.