By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — The expectations are suddenly rocketing up for a Carolina baseball team that is putting it all together at the right time.
From Angel Zarate’s first-pitch home run in the first inning, the Tar Heels were in command, combining timely hitting, productive outs, solid defense and good pitching to earn an 11–0 senior-day victory Saturday over Florida State at Boshamer Stadium for their first ACC shutout of the season.
It took a while to enjoy it though, because there was a two-hour, 37-minute weather delay in the seventh inning before UNC scored five runs in that inning when the game resumed. But it was a day of patience for UNC, which drew 10 walks.
Carolina (34–19, 15–15 ACC) got its second ACC series sweep of the season, the other also coming at home March 11–13 against Pittsburgh. The Heels has victories in eight of their last nine games and take plenty of momentum into next week’s ACC Tournament in Charlotte as the No. 8 seed.
UNC will be in Pool A with No. 1-seed and No. 2-ranked Virginia Tech (40–11, 19–9) and No. 12-seed Clemson (35–21, 13–16). The Hokies took two of three from UNC in an early April series in Chapel Hill. The Tigers and Heels haven’t met this season.
UNC meets Clemson at 7 p.m. Tuesday (regional sports networks) and Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. Friday (regional sports networks).
“This group’s in a good place right now. We hope to keep the momentum, but they’re extremely confident in themselves right now,” UNC coach Scott Forbes said after the program’s third sweep of the Seminoles in program history. “And you look at how everybody’s raised their level of play. Guys are driving the ball, hitting the ball out of the park. and these guys are throwing better than they did in that tough stretch. And that’s what it’s taken.”
With an NCAA berth no longer in doubt, UNC might be in position to earn a No. 2 seed and could potentially be sub-regional host if the Tar Heels can advance to the ACC championship game.
“I think we have a lot of momentum,” said center fielder Vance Honeycutt (right in top photo), who hit one of UNC’s three home runs for his 17th of the season. “I think we have a lot of confidence. And that rain delay may have been a blessing in disguise because we came out and put a five-spot pretty quick. That just gives us a lot of confidence going forward.”
Given where the team was a few weeks ago, Zarate said that the team has become used to having a postseason mentality for every game because the Tar Heels knew they had ground to make up to make it to the NCAA tournament.
“I think that’s really helped everybody play their best game every game,” said Zarate, one of 11 graduates recognized before the game. “That’s what we need to win these games down the stretch. Everybody has to be at the top of their game — pitchers, hitters, in the field. If we do that, then we’ll be able to be in a bunch of these games down the stretch. And now, when we’re all playing good, we can beat anyone in the nation.”
Six pitchers combined for UNC’s first ACC shutout since a 5–0 home victory on May 15 of last season against Louisville. It was the second time shutting out FSU in program history, the first coming in 2006.
The better pitching is a big part of why the Tar Heels but also solid defense, including one particularly nice play by second baseman Colby Wilkerson up the middle. That kind of defense is important with a staff that doesn’t get lots of strikeouts.
“We weren’t making that play,” Forbes said of when the team was struggling before the exam break. “So we’re making those now, giving teams less opportunities. So, we’ve shored that up a little bit and that’s helped us a ton.”
Starter Will Sandy scattered three hits in 3+ innings, Nik Pry (2–0) struck out three in two hitless innings, Connor Bovair yielded three hits and struck out two in two innings and Gage Gillian threw 1⅓ hitless innings. Caden O’Brien came in to strike out one batter in the ninth inning and Connor Ollio retired the last batter.
For the third time this season, Zarate hit the first pitch thrown to a Tar Heel for a home run. His fifth homer of the season and fourth in the first inning went an estimated 409 feet over the right-field wall.
“I was just trying to be on time,” Zarate said. “It just happened. I knew that they had a lot of lefties and, to be quite honest, I went into that at-bat like, ‘Another lefty; let’s just get this over with.’ But I put a good swing on it and you saw what happened.”
UNC added to its lead on sacrifice flies from Mac Horvath and Danny Serretti in the second inning and Tomas Frick in the fifth inning. Those were some of the productive outs by the Tar Heels, who also got a good sacrifice bunt in the big seventh inning from ninth-place hitter Wilkerson in small ball that has worked well for them in recent weeks.
“That’s a part of our game we want to be able to use and we’ve talked about, during this stretch, if we’re playing well and guys are pitching well, we are up three nothing, we’ve got to get a sac bunt down and go for it,” Forbes said. “Anytime we have a chance to play for a run in the bottom of the order, what we have at the top we’re probably going to [sacrifice].”
Alberto Osuna made it 6–0 with a two-out, bases-loaded single to left field in the sixth inning, giving him 36 RBI in the last 24 games.
After the weather delay, UNC broke it open with a one-out RBI single from Zarate, Horvath’s two-run blast to left and Honeycutt’s two-run homer to right-center.
The only negative on the day for UNC was Serretti’s career-high hitting streak ending at 26. It was the longest since Kyle Seager’s 27-game hitting streak in 2008 and the sixth of at least 26 in program history.
Florida State (32–22, 15–15) lost its last four regular-season games.
UNC 11, FSU 0
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications