By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — If North Carolina is going to turn the season around, the Tar Heels will do it with the kind of pitching that, on Wednesday, threw them into the exam break in dominant fashion.
With nearly a week before the next game, Coach Scott Forbes used his top two starters, right-hander Max Carlson and left-hander Brandon Shaeffer (top photo), and they followed up good outings last weekend by holding Liberty in check.
With the same sort of offense that UNC has consistently put up, it meant a convincing 8–1 victory at Boshamer Stadium to snap a three-game losing streak.
“When you come off a tough weekend in ACC and you play a quality midweek opponent, it can really help you because, in the game of baseball, it can flip fast,” said Forbes, whose team got swept last weekend at Virginia for its fifth consecutive ACC series loss. “We’ve still got a lot of things we need to work on. But that’s a big win for our guys and I’m happy for them because confidence is confidence and it comes from winning games.”
The Tar Heels (24–17) can only hope this game shifts their fortunes like last year’s victory over Campbell before the exam break when ace Austin Love came out of the bullpen. That win snapped a five-game losing streak, then UNC won four consecutive ACC games when the season resumed.
“Sometimes you don’t want to break during exams,” said Forbes, whose team plays Charlotte on Tuesday before a weekend series at N.C. State. “Sometimes the break comes at a great time and I think, for us, it’s at a good time. Especially getting that win against Liberty like we did against Campbell last year.”
Carlson started it off by giving up only a leadoff home run to Liberty catcher Gray Betts in the third inning, which was his last. Carlson, who walked three but stuck out five, came out after throwing 65 pitches since he was coming off a 112-pitch game in Friday’s 4–2 loss at Virginia.
It was during the first two innings of that game in Charlottesville that Carlson says he changed his mentality and that appears to have helped.
“I just had to take a look at myself and be like, ‘just have fun, man,’ ” said Carlson, who was pitching on what would have been his bullpen day. “ ‘It’s a game. You’ve been playing it since you were five, six years old. So, just have some fun. Do what you do.’ Doing what I used to do as kid, having fun playing the game of baseball and pitching. And I think that just helps me mentally.”
It took a while to get to that place, given the pressure that comes with being the ace who starts the first game of every ACC series.
“When you’re put in that role, Friday night starter, you feel like you have to put the team on your back,” Carlson said. “And that’s how it is, and I probably did put too much pressure on myself. Just go back to my roots. Have fun playing baseball.”
Shaeffer (4–1) relieved Carlson, striking out four with one walk and two hits in 4⅓ shutout innings. Davis Palermo finished it off for UNC with 1⅓ shutout innings with two strikeouts.
“The starting pitching hasn’t been quite where it needs to be yet,” said Shaeffer, who regularly starts the second game of ACC series. “We’ve talked about that and we’re just working on one thing at a time, just doing our job pitch by pitch. And kind of that mentality, you look up and you’re four or five innings into the game. That’s what we’re going off of now to keep going moving forward.”
He was efficient in getting through his innings with only 58 pitches, and Shaeffer said that was all about staying in the strike zone and attacking.
“Earlier in the year, I got into a bit of a pattern where I was a little bit outside the zone; I was a little bit timid with some of my pitches,” Shaeffer said. “So, basically getting back to what I do and just attacking hitters and living in the zone and letting the stuff play. I have a good defense behind me, so I trust them to make the plays, which they did.”
UNC avenged a 1–0 March 8 loss to Liberty (26–12), which had won four in a row, including a victory over Duke.
“I just remind them every day is a new day and you have to come in here and do the same thing tomorrow,” Forbes said. “No matter what, whether or not we beat Liberty today or whether or not we lost to Liberty, and just stay on our journey.”
Carolina got all the runs it would need in the five-run second inning when it got four consecutive singles from the bottom of the order. RBI singles from catcher Max Reimer, left fielder Mikey Madej and center fielder Vance Honeycutt combined with a Liberty error and a wild pitch in the inning.
The Tar Heels padded their lead with Mac Horvath’s two-run, two-out home run in the fourth inning off the scoreboard in left field (his second consecutive game with a homer) and Johnny Castagnozzi’s lead-off homer to right in the fifth.
Career-long hitting streaks of 14 games for Danny Serretti and eight for Hunter Stockly ended in the game.
Carolina plays host to Charlotte at 7 p.m. Tuesday (ACC Network).
UNC 8, Liberty 1
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications