By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Starting pitching has a way of sending momentum built in a young season the opposite direction in a hurry for one night.
That happened convincingly Friday night when previously reeling N.C. State rode a complete game from right-hander Reid Johnston (2–0) and North Carolina ace Austin Love (4–1) battled through his worst start of the season.
The Wolfpack (6–9, 2–8 ACC), which had lost its previous five ACC games, got to Love early on its way to a 9–2 victory at Boshamer Stadium over Carolina (13–7, 8–5), which had won six of its last previous seven league contests.
It was State’s third consecutive one-sided win over UNC, after winning the last two games of the teams’ 2019 series 11–2 and 11–0.
Love, who only allowed a combined nine runs (eight earned) in his first five starts, got touched for eight hits and eight runs (six earned) in four innings with three strikeouts, with the biggest blow a second-inning grand slam from Wolfpack third baseman Vojtech Mensik.
“I would just say his off-speed command was below average, and they were able to stay on the fastball,” UNC coach Scott Forbes said. “And when he threw the fastball, he made mistakes with it when they were hitters’ counts and they were up in the zone and they made him pay it.”
The teams had gone different directions since North Carolina was unranked in preseason polls and picked fifth in the ACC Coastal Division and N.C. State was as high as No. 17 preseason and predicted to finish second in the Atlantic.
The Tar Heels were tied for the Coastal lead, while the Pack was in the Atlantic cellar coming into the weekend with the worst ERA in the ACC.
All that didn’t matter on a beautiful spring evening.
State jumped out to a 7–0 lead on Tyler McDonough’s solo home run to right-center in the first inning, his RBI single in the second, Mensik’sgrand slam to left in the second, then a pair of UNC throwing errors that led to third-inning run.
“If you look at the whole outing, I mean, it’s two balls absolutely scalded,” Forbes said. “The negative is one of them was a solo home run and one of them was a grand slam with nobody was out. When that happens, you know you’re down right out the gate.”
Meanwhile, Johnston scattered seven hits in making his first start of the season after previously being the long man out of the bullpen. He had Carolina batters guessing all evening with his off-speed stuff and a fastball that pushed 90 mph and struck out four.
“He’s always pitched well against us,” Forbes said. “I will say I was disappointed in our response offensively when we went down I think six to nothing. I don’t think we had very good at-bats back to back.”
Two of UNC’s seven hits were on bunts hit away from shifts. Shortstop Danny Serretti drove in a run with a third-inning RBI single but got robbed of two hits on nice catches of hard-hit balls. The Tar Heels’ Hunter Stokely launched a solo home run to right field off Johnston in the ninth inning.
The good off the mound for the Tar Heels was that six relievers only gave up two hits and one run.
“I mean you always look for the positives out whatever you can,” Forbes said. “There’s not much to get out of a Friday night loss to your rival but we had some guys that had not even pitched and they did really well.”
The best of the relievers, neither of whom gave up a hit, were right-hander Gage Gillian, who had a strikeout in two scoreless innings, and Chris Joyner, who had two strikeouts in one scoreless inning.
“We’re process-oriented and you’re not going to be happy that you lost,” Forbes said. “But it’s just baseball in this league. It’s a tough league and, you know, how you respond to the most important thing.”
UNC tries to even the series at 1 p.m. Saturday in a matchup of two right-handers, with UNC’s Max Alba (2–1, 5.09 ERA) opposing Sam Highfill (0–1, 4.87 ERA).
N.C. State 9, UNC 2
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communication