Streaking Heels advance to ACC championship game

By R.L. Bynum

CHARLOTTE — North Carolina hasn’t made an ACC baseball tournament championship game since Danny Serretti’s freshman season.

The fourth-year junior shortstop started UNC on its way there with his two-run, two-out double in the three-run eighth inning. That helped propel the Tar Heels to their sixth consecutive win, 7–2, Saturday in the ACC Tournament semifinals over Notre Dame.

“I think they are two different teams, different identities, but we were both hitting our stride at around this time,” said Serretti, comparing this season’s team to 2019. “So, that’s the biggest thing and just the vibe is very positive. Very confident right now.” So I’d say that’s it.”

The No. 8-seed Tar Heels (37–19) play No. 10-seed N.C. State at noon Sunday (ESPN2), seeking their first ACC title since beating Georgia Tech in 2019 in the championship game to earn the right to host an NCAA tournament regional.

The Wolfpack (36–20), beat No. 11-seed Pittsburgh 8-3 in the second semifinal on Saturday, lost two of three games against Carolina in an early May series in Raleigh..

UNC has probably already done enough in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee to be a regional host. Even before Saturday’s victory, d1baseball.com projected the Tar Heels as a host.

Serretti comes into Sunday’s title game with a lot more experience than in 2019, and he says the team is battle-tested with wins in 11 of its last 12 games. During that stretch, the Tar Heels played like they had to win every game.

“We had to win every single game,” he said. “So, I think we’re ready for it and I’m excited to work.”

With the game very much in doubt, Serretti got ahead in the count ahead of delivering that key double.

“I was fortunate to get into a good hitters count and had a good feeling he was probably gonna throw me a fastball,” he said. “So, I just had to be on time for it and glad I got it done.”

Few thought a month ago that UNC would be in a position to host a regional but the team has also evidently got that done also.

“I don’t think anybody would have would have believed that we’d be hosting a regional except for us,” he said. “We’ve just been putting our head down and we knew we had the talent. We just had to get over that hump a little bit and we were able to do that and now you know, we’re hosting a regional and we deserve to.”

Five UNC pitchers combined to hold Notre Dame (35–14) to two runs and seven hits to earn the Tar Heels’ 13th trip to the championship game. Shawn Rapp (4–0) pitched 1⅔ shutout innings to get the win.

Davis Palermo earned his fifth save of the season, giving up one hit and striking out three in two innings. Starter Will Sandy (2⅓ innings) and the first reliever, Gage Gillian (2⅔), each gave up one run but also pitched out of trouble.

“I thought Sandy got us off on a good start,” UNC coach Scott Forbes said. “And I thought Gage Gillian was a huge force for us today. He showed those glimpses of how good he was last year and the rest of our pitchers came in and did their jobs.”

Forbes hadn’t named a Sunday starter as the second semifinal was about to be played but right-hander Max Carlson is available on four days’ rest after going six innings and throwing 95 pitches in Tuesday’s 9–2 pool-play victory over Clemson.

The bottom of UNC’s order scratched out a run in the second when Mikey Madej singled and, after a Tomas Frick double, scored on Colby Wilkerson’s bases-loaded, one-out fielder’s choice ground ball when the Irish couldn’t complete what would have been an inning-ending double play.

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Ninth-place hitter Jack Brannigan tied it for Notre Dame with a long home run to left field to lead off the third inning, the first hit off Sandy.

The Irish left six runners on base in the first four innings. Sandy ended the first and third innings with strikeouts to leave two on each time, and Gillian induced an inning-ending groundout with two on in the fourth.

Carter Putz broke through in the fifth for the Irish with a one-out home run to left field to put Notre Dame up 2–1, marking the first time the Tar Heels had trailed in the ACC Tournament.

The Tar Heels, who left seven runners stranded in the first five innings, again got production from the bottom of the order in the sixth after Madej, who went 4-for-4, led off with a single to center.

He came around from first to score when Hunter Stokely’s drive down the left-field line hit the lip of the grass and went for an RBI double to tie it. A regular bounce on the dirt or the grass may not have produced a run.

After Carolina went hitless in its first nine at-bats with runners in scoring position, Mac Horvath’s bases-loaded, two-out single to right field in the eighth inning was followed by Serretti’s double to left field to give the Heels a 5–2 edge.

Johnny Castagnozzi padded UNC’s lead in the ninth inning with a two-run single to center field.

UNC 7, Notre Dame 2

Photo courtesy of the ACC

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