Sweep of Wolfpack shows UNC has the momentum, swagger to possibly replicate last season’s May magic

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL From suicide-squeezing in the game-ending run in the opener to a pair of blowout victories, North Carolina’s three-game sweep of N.C. State showed that the Tar Heels have the potential to repeat the May magic of a year ago.

A year after flipping the switch and surging to the ACC title before hosting a regional and a Super Regional, UNC — after never reaching low points quite as dire — appears to have flipped the switch faster than a Mac Horvath drive shoots over the outfield wall.

“I just see confidence,” UNC coach Scott Forbes said. “You get punched in the face sometime in the season. The better teams handle adversity, and it makes them better. The teams that aren’t as good, they usually fold somewhere in there.”

There is no folding from his Tar Heels.

Carolina (33–17, 14–11 ACC) entered the exam break in a much better position than last season and appears to be shaking off lingering issues during an impressive run. The Tar Heels have won five in a row, seven of their last eight — six against top 50 RPI teams — while outscoring opponents by 28 runs.

“Everyone is kind of grabbing onto each other and playing for each other, not worried about themselves, which has helped us, I think, this last few weeks,” said junior third baseman Johnny Castagnozzi, who sees similarities with last year’s team. “We’ve got good leadership, and that’s really what got us where we were last year, and I think it’s gonna get us there again this year and even further.”

At the top of that leadership is Horvath, a junior who called the players-only meeting when Boston College swept the Heels and challenged them after he saw a casual postgame attitude after some losses.

Horvath, leading the team with 21 home runs and the ACC with 22 steals, also put the team first. He’s principally playing right field to get Castagnozzi’s bat into the lineup, even though his best defensive position is third base.

“We have tough kids, and we’re led by the toughest kid on the team in Mac Horvath,” Forbes said.

There were challenges coming into the season. Carolina had to replace two players with more than 95 hits each in outfielder Angel Zarate (.352) and switch-hitting shortstop Danny Serretti (.365), the bulk of the bullpen and ace Brandon Schaeffer (who threw 96 innings).

Forbes slid junior Colby Wilkerson’s stellar defense from second base to shortstop, plugged in junior transfer Jackson Van De Brake at second base and redshirt freshman Casey Cook, who has excelled in the lead-off spot, in the outfield.

UNC added right-handed junior transfer pitchers Jake Knapp (who was excellent starting Saturday’s 12–2 win over State), Matt Poston (four saves), Kevin Eaise (five saves) and Ben Peterson, as well as redshirt freshman left-hander Dalton Pence, to the pitching staff, but none had ACC experience.

“I thought it would take a little while,” Forbes said. “I was just hoping we could navigate the waters once we got to the ACC because ACC is so dang good. [If we could] keep our head above water toward the end, I felt, as coaches, we would have an idea of where to put them for success.”

UNC seems to have resolved the chief issues that held the team back, and inflicted the result on the Wolfpack with the first ACC sweep of the season. The thrilling 9–8 win in the series opener Thursday was Carolina’s third consecutive win in a one-run game after losing six of the first nine. N.C. State coach Elliott Avent called it probably the worst regular-season loss in his 40 years of coaching.

“I feel like we have a better idea of what roles to put guys in to have success,” Forbes said.

The Tar Heels had a stretch when the bullpen wasted good outings by the starting pitchers. They struggled in several games because short, ineffective starts from the rotation taxed a relief corps that was making strides and falling into their roles. That led to overworked relievers and series-long challenges against ACC teams.

Carolina struggled mightily during an April stretch with runners in scoring position, suffering through an 0 of 19 funk with the bases loaded.

The Tar Heel’s first sweep of the Wolfpack since 2018 showed that all of those challenges could be in the past. Right-handers Max Carlson and Knapp each had impressive starts, and the bullpen was stellar all series. UNC scored 12 two-out runs in the last two games, going 10 of 20 with runners in scoring position in Saturday’s victory.

“Obviously, we got beat up a little bit in the middle of the season, but everyone’s confident, leaving it all out there,” Knapp said. “I think that’s the biggest thing is attacking. The walks are going down; the defense is playing great.”

A lot of little tweaks have combined to make a big impact. For example, Forbes pointed out that pitching coach Bryant Gaines worked with Peterson because of the poor analytics on the four-seam grip on his fastball.

“As soon as he went to that two-seamer, it becomes one of our best fastballs,” Forbes said. “That thing is almost like a spitball, a sinker.”

Cook watched last season’s run from the sideline and says it feels like this season’s team is building similar momentum.

Cook remembers center fielder Vance Honeycutt saying that, “ ‘it almost felt like a team could put up five in the first inning and everyone knew we were going to win the game.’ I think we are playing good baseball, and we are getting the mojo and swagger we needed.”

Carolina tries to keep the momentum going with Tuesday’s 6 p.m. game at No. 8 Coastal Carolina, seeking to avenge a 12–7 loss on March 28, and next weekend at No. 16 Clemson.

The Tar Heels are 5–13 against teams currently ranked in the Top 25, but those losses were before they started to put things together. The sweep pushed UNC to No. 24 in the RPI, a rise of eight in the last eight days.

The Tar Heels have a renewed confidence that they can go to South Carolina next week and finish the regular season by bolstering their NCAA resume.

UNC statistics

(current rank)
17Friday10–8 LSeton HallHome0–1
18Saturday11–2 WSeton HallHome1–1
19Sunday4–2 WSeton HallHome2–1
21Tuesday14–2 WRadfordHome3–1
22Wed.10–0 WLongwoodHome4–1
24Friday6–5 LNo. 15 East CarolinaGreenville4–2
26Sunday6–5 LNo. 15 East CarolinaHome4–3
28Tuesday10–4 WVCUHome5–3
1Wed.14–10 WVCUHome6–3
3Friday3–2 W
11 innings
Stony BrookHome7–3
4Saturday7–5 WStony BrookHome8–3
5Sunday15–4 WStony BrookHome9–3
7Tuesday8–4 W,
5 innings
Western CarolinaHome10–3
8Wed.15–5 WPenn StateHome11–3
10Friday7–3 LNo. 11 VirginiaHome11–4,
0–1 ACC
11Saturday8–4 LNo. 11 VirginiaHome11–5,
0–2 ACC
11Saturday6–0 WNo. 11 VirginiaHome12–5,
1–2 ACC
14Tuesday16–3 WCharlotteCharlotte13–5
15Wed.16–2 WHigh PointHome14–5
17, 18Friday,
17–7 WPittsburghPittsburgh15–5,
2–2 ACC
21Tuesday6–4 WN.C. A&THome16–5
23Thursday6–3 WDukeHome17–5,
3–2 ACC
24Friday8–5 LDukeHome17–6,
3–3 ACC
25Saturday5–3 WDukeHome18–6,
4–3 ACC
28Tuesday12–7 LNo. 9 Coastal CarolinaHome18–7
31Friday10–8 WNotre DameSouth Bend, Ind.19–7,
5–3 ACC
2Sunday5–2 WNotre DameSouth Bend, Ind.20–7,
6–3 ACC
2Sunday9–1 LNotre DameSouth Bend, Ind20–8,
6–4 ACC
4Tuesday5–0 LSouth CarolinaCharlotte20–9
6Thursday8–1 WGeorgia TechAtlanta21–9,
7–4 ACC
7Friday10–6 WGeorgia TechAtlanta22–9,
8–4 ACC
7Friday8–4 LGeorgia TechAtlanta22–10,
8–5 ACC
11Tuesday10–6 WQueensHome23–10
13Thursday5–4 LNo. 8 MiamiHome23–11,
8–6 ACC
9–8 W,
11 inn.
No. 8 MiamiHome24–11,
9–6 ACC
15Saturday4–3 LNo. 8 MiamiHome24–12,
9–7 ACC
18Tuesday5–3 WCharlotteHome25–12
21Friday9–8 L,
10 inn.
Boston CollegeHome25–13,
9–8 ACC
22Saturday9–4 LBoston CollegeHome25–14,
9–9 ACC
23Sunday6–2 LBoston CollegeHome25–15,
9–10 ACC
25Tuesday18–2 WUNCWHome26–15
28Friday7–0 LVirginia TechBlacksburg, Va.26–16,
9–11 ACC
29Saturday12–8 WVirginia TechBlacksburg, Va.27–16,
10–11 ACC
29Saturday13–7 WVirginia TechBlacksburg, Va.28–16,
11–11 ACC
2Tuesday6–5 LNo. 11 CampbellHome28–17
3Wed.2–1 WNo. 15 East CarolinaGreenville29–17
9Tuesday5–4 WGardner-WebbHome30–17
11Thursday9–8 WN.C. StateHome31–17,
12–11 ACC
12Friday9–3 WN.C. StateHome32–17,
13–11 ACC
13Saturday12–2 WN.C. StateHome33–17,
14–11 ACC
16Tuesday8–6 LNo. 9 Coastal CarolinaConway, S.C.33–18
18Thursday14–7 LNo. 3 ClemsonClemson, S.C.33–19,
14–12 ACC
19Friday5–4 LNo. 3 ClemsonClemson, S.C.33–20,
14–13 ACC
20Saturday3–1 LNo. 3 ClemsonClemson, S.C.33–21,
14–14 ACC
ACC tournament
23Tuesday11–5 WGeorgia TechDurham34–21
25Thursday10–2 WNo. 11 VirginiaDurham35–21
27Saturday10–4 LSemifinal vs.
No. 3 Clemson
JuneNCAA tournament
Terre Haute Regional
2Friday5–4 LIowaTerre Haute, Ind.35–23
3Saturday5–0 WWright StateTerre Haute, Ind.36–23
4Sunday6–5 L,
13 innings
Iowa Terre Haute, Ind.36–24
Rankings according to D1Baseball

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications


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