By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — In Carolina’s first three losses this season, the bullpen wasted good starts. The script flipped for the No. 14 Tar Heels, with the relievers pitching well after a rough night from their starter.
Leaving 11 runners on base snuffed UNC’s chances to rally as No. 17 Virginia became the only remaining unbeaten team in the country with a 7–3 victory Friday in the ACC opener for both teams to snap the Heels’ seven-game win streak. Alabama and N.C. State were also unbeaten before losing Friday.
Clutch relief pitching held the Cavaliers to one run after they got six off starter Max Carlson in 1 ⅔ innings, who started the game despite having a mild fever.
Four Carolina pitchers combined to strike out 18 Cavaliers (13–0), the most for them in at least 23 seasons and the most for a UNC staff in four seasons.
Two fifth-year UNC relievers matched their career-highs in strikeouts, with left-hander Will Sandy (top photo) fanning seven in three innings (four hits, one run, one walk) and right-hander Kevin Eaise (no hits or runs and one walk) striking out nine in 3⅓ innings.
UNC coach Scott Forbes called their performances phenomenal.
“We need them to be really good for us. We thought they were going to be really good for us. They had slow starts,” Forbes said after Sandy entered the game with a 7.50 ERA and Eaise with a 6.35 ERA. “I thought they were both extremely aggressive.”
Sandy closed out three consecutive scoreless innings with strikeouts — leaving two on in the third and one each in the fourth and fifth innings.
“You get fired up when we execute pitches the way you want and I made some big pitches, so you get pumped up afterward,” said Sandy, who began the season as the Saturday starter but has shifted to a bullpen role after some rough starts.
Forbes said Sandy was trying to place the ball during his two starts instead of using the approach that impressed the coaches so much during the preseason.
“The thing that separated him early, his velocity was good, he was ultra-aggressive,” said Forbes of Sandy, who gave up a Jake Gelof no-doubt fifth-inning solo homer to right-center field. “That was the first time I’d seen him look like he did in the preseason. He was aggressive.”
In the sixth inning, Eaise made it four straight inning-ending strikeouts, this time leaving two Cavaliers stranded. Eaise also stranded a runner with an inning-ending strikeout in the eighth inning and he struck out the last six Virginia batters.
“Coming in after Sandy, following his approach, just kind of attacking, trusting the stuff,” Eaise said.
Eaise, in his finest outing as a Tar Heel, got most of his strikeouts off his slider, with plenty of swings and misses.
The Carolina bullpen was a huge story from this game, but also the missed chances on offense to put together big innings were just as big.
“We preach to them all the time how batting average doesn’t matter,” Forbes said. “Success with runners in scoring position is what matters. We’re hunting RBIs and we’re hunting runs, and we had those opportunities.”
Jackson Van De Brake, batting sixth, crushed the first pitch he saw 388 feet for a two-run homer to left in the second, his seventh homer of the season.
The Tar Heels loaded the bases with one out in the fourth inning and got nothing. In the fifth, they had two on and one out but Virginia left-handed reliever Angelo Tonas (1–0) struck out Van De Brake and pinch hitter Eric Grintz to get out of that inning.
UNC got a run on Van De Brake’s two-out RBI single to right in the seventh inning but left pinch hitter Johnny Castagnozzi left two on with an inning-ending groundout.
Forbes said that he didn’t think the problem was his hitters being too aggressive at the plate but that they changed their approaches. He said that was particularly true against left-handed reliever Jake Berry, who earned his second save of the season by pitching the last three innings, giving up three hits and one unearned run and striking out four.
Carlson escaped with only giving up an unearned run in the first inning after shortstop Griff O’Ferrall’s RBI single to center field. With runners at first and second and one out, Carlson struck out Casey Saucke looking. Tomas Frick, who had two passed balls in the inning after getting only two in his first 14 games catching, threw out baserunner Gelof at third to end the inning.
Carlson wasn’t so lucky in the second inning, exiting after Justin Rubin’s two-run double to left and Ethan O’Donnell’s three-run homer to right. Against the toughest lineup Carlson has faced this season, he gave up seven hits, six runs (five earned) with three walks and two strikeouts in 59 pitches over 1⅔ innings.
“Sometimes that happens to a Friday night guy,” Forbes said. “I’ve seen that happen to Alex White, one of the best we’ve ever had. I think Carlson’s a legit Friday night guy. He’ll be better because of it. But I am proud of our bullpen because, in our league, if somebody doesn’t bridge the gap, it can get ugly on a Friday and you can have no shot at winning that game.”
NOTES — The teams finish the series with a Saturday doubleheader starting at 1 p.m., with right-handers meeting in both games. In the opener, UNC junior Connor Bovair (1–0, 1.76 ERA) opposes fifth-year pitcher Brian Edgington (3–0, 1.76), with Carolina junior transfer Jake Knapp (2–0, 3.00) meeting Cavaliers freshman Jack O’Connor (1–0, 1.72) in the second game. … It was the most strikeouts by a Carolina pitching staff since fanning 18 on March 30, 2018, in a 3–2 15-inning victory over Wake Forest. … Virginia officials said that, going back to at least 2000, the Cavaliers hadn’t struck out 18 times in a game. … The Cavaliers came into the game ranked third in the country in batting average (.365), fifth in team ERA (2.29) and sixth in fielding percentage (.988). … Fans who had tickets to the originally scheduled Sunday game can get a refund or exchange them for a Saturday ticket, which is good for both games.
No. 17 Virginia 7, No. 13 UNC 3
|17||Friday||10–8 L||Seton Hall||Home||0–1|
|18||Saturday||11–2 W||Seton Hall||Home||1–1|
|19||Sunday||4–2 W||Seton Hall||Home||2–1|
|24||Friday||6–5 L||No. 8 East Carolina||Greenville||4–2|
|26||Sunday||6–5 L||No. 8 East Carolina||Home||4–3|
|4||Saturday||7–5 W||Stony Brook||Home||8–3|
|5||Sunday||15–4 W||Stony Brook||Home||9–3|
|8||Wed.||15–5 W||Penn State||Home||11–3|
|10||Friday||7–3 L||No. 5 Virginia||Home||11–4,|
|11||Saturday||8–4 L||No. 5 Virginia||Home||11–5,|
|11||Saturday||6–0 W||No. 5 Virginia||Home||12–5,|
|15||Wed.||16–2 W||High Point||Home||14–5|
|17–7 W||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||15–5, |
|21||Tuesday||6–4 W||N.C. A&T||Home||16–5|
|23||Thursday||6–3 W||Duke||Home||17–5, |
|24||Friday||8–5 L||Duke||Home||17–6, |
|25||Saturday||5–3 W||Duke||Home||18–6, |
|28||Tuesday||4 p.m.||No. 19 Coastal Carolina||Home||None|
|31||Friday||6 p.m.||Notre Dame||South Bend, Ind.||ESPN3|
|1||Saturday||3 p.m.||Notre Dame||South Bend, Ind.||ESPN3|
|2||Sunday||1 p.m.||Notre Dame||South Bend, Ind.||ESPN3|
|4||Tuesday||7 p.m.||No. 9 South Carolina||Charlotte||ESPN3|
|6||Thursday||6 p.m.||Georgia Tech||Atlanta||SECN+|
|7||Friday||6 p.m.||Georgia Tech||Atlanta||ESPN3|
|8||Saturday||1 p.m.||Georgia Tech||Atlanta||ACCN|
|13||Thursday||7 p.m.||No. 23 Miami||Home||ACCN|
|14||Friday||6 p.m.||No. 23 Miami||Home||ESPNU|
|15||Saturday||2 p.m.||No. 23 Miami||Home||ESPN3|
|21||Friday||6 p.m.||No. 14 Boston College||Home||ESPN3|
|22||Saturday||2 p.m.||No. 14 Boston College||Home||ESPN3|
|23||Sunday||1 p.m.||No. 14 Boston College||Home||ESPN3|
|28||Friday||7 p.m.||Virginia Tech||Blacksburg, Va.||ESPN3|
|29||Saturday||7 p.m.||Virginia Tech||Blacksburg, Va.||ACCN|
|30||Sunday||1 p.m.||Virginia Tech||Blacksburg, Va.||ESPN3|
|3||Wednesday||5 p.m.||No. 8 East Carolina||Greenville||ESPN+|
|11||Thursday||7 p.m.||N.C. State||Home||ESPN3|
|12||Friday||6 p.m.||N.C. State||Home||ACCN|
|13||Saturday||2 p.m.||N.C. State||Home||ESPN3|
|16||Tuesday||7 p.m.||Coastal Carolina||Conway, S.C.||ESPN3|
|18||Thursday||6 p.m.||Clemson||Clemson, S.C.||ESPN3|
|19||Friday||6 p.m.||Clemson||Clemson, S.C.||ESPN3|
|20||Saturday||1 p.m.||Clemson||Clemson, S.C.||ACCN|
|TBA||NCAA Super Regionals||TBA|
|TBA||College World Series||Omaha, Neb.|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications