By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina sent two clear and powerful messages as the Scott Forbes era started with a bang on a chilly Opening Day at Boshamer Stadium: Don’t try to sneak a first-pitch breaking ball by Caleb Roberts and don’t think that you can get around on Austin Love’s fastball.
James Madison learned that cold lesson, among others, as the Tar Heels rolled to an 8–1 victory Friday in Forbes’ first game as head coach after 19 years on Coach Mike Fox’s staff.
Love struck out nine in six no-hit innings with a dominant fastball consistently in the 90s and Roberts went 3 for 5 with two home runs and five RBI.
Forbes compared the feeling of his head-coaching debut to the first time Carolina made it to the College World Series in Omaha. It was big, but once the game started, it was like any other game.
“The biggest thing that hit me is I did glance up and I saw Coach Fox,” Forbes said. “Having him here meant a lot to me and to have my mom, my dad, my wife, my family and just know how much they support me and how much coach Fox supports me.”
Any doubts about whether the Tar Heels (1–0) had a powerful Friday starter were quickly dispensed by Love, a redshirt sophomore making his first career start after being the closer last season. He struck out the side in his first and last innings, only walked two and allowed just three base runners before being lifted because he was at 84 pitches.
“For me, Austin Love just set the tone for us right away,” Forbes said. “We talked about pitching and defense and when you throw the ball like that, we’re gonna have a chance to win every game.”
Love came into the game knowing he only would be able to throw 80 or 90 pitches, so he wasn’t surprised to leave the game.
“I think it was the right choice for them to take me out,” Love said. “When they took me out, I wasn’t really surprised. But I, obviously, wanted to keep going. I feel like I could have kept going for sure, just with all of the adrenaline I had.”
Forbes said pulling Love wasn’t a tough decision.
“We know it’s a long season,” Forbes said. “Honestly, Austin probably could have thrown 120 because he’s built for it. But we didn’t want to run them up there that high because the preseason has been so cold. We wanted to ease them into it, so it wasn’t a difficult decision.”
Love pitched a six-inning no-hitter in a mercy-rule shortened victory while pitching for West Rowan High School. But this performance was more memorable because he was fulfilling his dream of being a Friday starter for Carolina.
“For sure, this is definitely a dream moment,” said Love, who also struck out nine in a relief appearance early last season against Dallas Baptist. “Ever since I committed to Carolina and when I was a little kid, this is what I’ve always wanted, to go out and perform like I did today. As much as I could ask for.”
Love settled in after that 16-pitch first inning with some efficient innings and pitched around a leadoff walk in the third inning and a two-on, two-out jam in the sixth.
“Today, I felt like my breaking ball wasn’t unbelievable,” Love said. “My fastball is definitely my best pitch, so I just stuck with that.”
The cold weather in the 40s didn’t bother him because he pitched in 30-degree weather a week earlier in a scrimmage.
JMU’s Kyle Novak quickly ended any hope of a combined no-hitter when, as the first batter after Love left the game, he singled off freshman left-handed UNC reliever Nick James. James gave up a hit and struck out one in one inning and redshirt freshman right-hander Caleb Cozart gave up a hit and an unearned run in two relief innings.
It was a particularly satisfying performance for Roberts, who only played three games last season because of an injury and had no homers in 158 previous at-bats.
“Felt good to get a lead early, take some of the pressure off Coach Forbes,” Roberts said. “We were just excited to get out there and the weather really didn’t affect us. It has been bad all preseason, so it wasn’t something that we weren’t used to.”
The left-handed-hitting Roberts became the first UNC player with multiple homers in an opener since Dustin Ackley and Seth Williams did it against Florida Atlantic in 2008. He lofted a first-pitch breaking ball 401 feet to right-center for a third-inning home run off JMU left-hander Liam McDonnell.
“We knew that the lefty had been throwing a lot of off-speed pitches, so I wasn’t shocked when he threw it first pitch,” said Roberts, who had the most Opening Day RBI since Chris Maples (6) and Adam Greenburg (5) in 2001 against James Madison.
McDonnell tried a first-pitch fastball against Roberts in the fourth inning and that didn’t work out much better. Roberts hit a shot over the right-field wall down the line for a 3-run home run to make it 6–0.
“I feel like now that I’m older, I’ve played two seasons and I feel like I’m able to slow the game down some,” Roberts said. “My approach has gotten a lot better at the plate.”
Roberts missed a chance at a grand slam when he struck out with two outs in the fifth inning.
Redshirt freshman left fielder Tyler Casey had the most impressive homer on the day. He launched a shot so far past the right-center field fence that he bounced off the brick of Karen Shelton Stadium in the fifth inning for a three-run homer, going 442 feet. It was his second career homer.
True freshman second baseman Jack Riedel was 2 for 4.
It was a different atmosphere at The Bosh, with only around 60 family members of the teams in the stands.
The series resumes at 2 p.m. Saturday with right-hander Nick Stewart, the Dukes’ ace, opposing UNC freshman right-hander Max Carlson. In Sunday’s 2 p.m. series finale, JMU right-hander Joe Vogatsky will face UNC redshirt freshman right-hander Max Alba.
Carolina 8, James Madison 1
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications