By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — If you are going to battle North Carolina’s baseball team, it’s best to do it before the exam break. The Tar Heels, for the second straight season, have gone from a team unlikely to make the NCAA tournament field before exams to earning high marks with the selection committee.
After losing five consecutive ACC series before the break, the Tar Heels defeated Florida State 10–4 on Friday night to clinch their third successive league series and put them in a good position for a postseason berth.
The 11-hit night was an impressive capper on a memorable night as UNC honored legendary former head coach Mike Fox before the game and retired his No. 30.
“They had no chance,” Fox’s successor Scott Forbes said of FSU’s shot at winning on Fox’s big night. “I felt like OK, it’s gonna be a tough day for somebody to beat us. And that was extremely special for me, obviously, because I wouldn’t be sitting here without the opportunity that I was given. So, just to watch it and to see everybody come and it to go about as perfect as it could? We knew that, for it to go as well as we needed to go, we also needed to win.”
Fox was also awarded The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian honor in the state of North Carolina.
The Tar Heels took advantage of some shoddy defense from the Seminoles (32–21, 15–14) and got timely power to win after taking Thursday’s series opener 7–5.
Danny Serretti’s eighth-inning grand slam followed Vance Honeycutt’s two-run shot in the first inning and Alberto Osuna’s solo homer in the fourth inning.
“I think the struggles that we went through really built us up and taught us how to deal with failure,” Serretti (top photo)said of the team’s play before exams. “When we got kicked in the mouth within a game, we knew we had been there. We knew not to panic and just trust the guys.”
There’s something about the post-exam break portion of the season that is a springboard.
In 2021, UNC, 21–21 entering the break, won six consecutive ACC games and earned an NCAA berth. This season, the Tar Heels entered the break with a much-better record at 23–13. But they have gone from 8–10 in the ACC before the break to 6–5 since then heading into Saturday’s 2 p.m. regular-season finale against the Seminoles (ESPN3).
There are similarities between the runs but the teams are different. Forbes said that even though this team doesn’t have Austin Love as the ace of the pitching staff, it’s deeper, and that showed Friday night.
“We didn’t have the power and athleticism distributed throughout the lineup in my opinion, and the RBIs,” Forbes said of last season’s team, adding that defense has been solid with Serretti at shortstop and Colby Wilkerson at second base.
Forbes said that the biggest game of that stretch was winning at N.C. State in the opener of that road series, but the mid-week victory over Charlotte was also huge.
“This team has been consistent; they’re workers,” Forbes said. “Their attitudes have been good. They’ve been a group that you want it for so bad because they don’t quit and they keep playing.”
UNC (33–19, 14–15 ACC) got another solid outing from its starter, this time left-hander Brandon Shaeffer (6–2), who gave up eight hits and three runs with two strikeouts in 6⅔ innings.
Shaeffer, like the rest of the team, is putting it all together.
“We knew we had the pieces all along,” he said. “It’s just guys picking each other up and everything coming together at the right time. We knew we were capable of making a run like this and we’re not done with it yet, either. But I think you’re starting to see when everybody starts playing better baseball what can happen and the type of baseball this team is capable of playing.”
Shaeffer rebounded from giving up two first-inning runs, and admitted he didn’t start out sharp on Friday.
“They’re a good team and good hitters are gonna put the bat on the ball and find the holes and that’s what they did,” Shaeffer said. “Just focusing on location and executing each pitch. I mixed in the changeup a little bit more tonight than I had been in previous outings. And I really had all three pitches for the majority of the night, so that helped me out.”
Both teams scored two in the first, Florida State on Brett Roberts’ one-out, two-run double and Carolina on Honeycutt’s no-doubt two-run, two-out homer to left field that would have gone 383 feet without the netting.
The Tar Heels took a 3–2 lead on Mac Horvath’s second-inning sacrifice fly.
Osuna crushed a drive over the left-field fence that would have traveled 420 feet without the netting with one out in the fifth. It was his third homer in seven at-bats.
FSU’s Brock Mathias crushed a leadoff home run in the seventh to trim the lead to one.
But UNC padded its lead in the bottom of that inning with the help of charitable FSU defense. Horvath doubled on a ball that fell between fielders in short right field and later scored on a throwing error. Mikey Madej’s sacrifice fly with one out made it 6–3.
Florida State scored on a wacky inning-ending eighth-inning play with one out.
Logan Lacey hit a pop up in front of the plate. An infield fly rule was called, meaning he was out. After Horvath, the UNC third baseman, couldn’t make the catch, pitcher Shawn Rapp picked up the ball and threw it wide of third base, allowing a runner who was on second to score. A second runner was thrown out at third to end the inning.
Serretti’s grand slam in the eighth put the game away.
Right fielder Angel Zarate saved at least a couple of runs with two outstanding catches.
UNC 10, FSU 4
Serretti, Fox and Schaeffer photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications