In what has been a roller coaster eight-week ACC ride to date, North Carolina (31-13; 18-6) has emerged as perhaps the team to beat following a weekend road sweep against previously Atlantic Division leading NC State (31-11; 15-9).
In front of sellout and spirited crowds each game at Doak Field, the Tar Heels won by scores of 6-5, 8-6 and yesterday's 5-4 thriller, capping the first sweep of NC State in Tar Heel history.
Friday the Wolfpack took a 4-3 lead into the 8th inning but couldn't close the deal. After receiving a solid start from freshman RHP Reid Johnston (4.2IP, 6H, 3ER, 1BB, 5K), towering lefty Kent Klyman entered and cruised through the 6 & 7th innings. However, in the 8th and facing hitters for the second time, he gave up 2 hits & 3 walks, including a bases-clearing double by SS Ike Freeman, surrendering the lead and ultimately the game, 6-5.
The Wolfpack had their chances, but left 10 runners on base & struck out a whopping 15 times against five UNC pitchers. Cooper Criswell got the start (4.1IP, 7H, 4R, 3ER, 0BB, 6K) and hard throwing freshman RHP Joey Lancellotti notched the save over 1.1 innings, striking out three.
Saturday matched Wolfpack ace LHP Brian Brown against UNC's talented but inconsistent RHP Austin Bergner on a picture perfect night for baseball (79 degrees at first pitch).
The 6-4 Bergner was the story as he commanded the zone and consistently got ahead of Pack hitters over 8 innings, striking out 11 without issuing a walk. His only nemesis on the night was the Pack's fabulous sophomore SS Will Wilson, who rocketed a double off the right field wall in the 4th, then launched a missile over the left-center wall for a solo homer in the 6th.
Brown entered the game 6-0 with a sparkling 0.99 ERA. Amazingly, he'd given up only 3 extra-base hits over 63.1 innings, all doubles. He cruised through the first three frames, retiring nine of ten Heel hitters with only Ike Freeman reaching on an error.
It's worth noting the home plate umpire's strike zone was higher than normal on this night. Brown was pounding the zone at the knees and below with his usual offerings, but didn't get some low strike calls.
That bit him in the 4th when he left two pitches up, resulting in back-to-back homers by 1B Michael Busch and 3B Kyle Datres, the first homers Brown has surrendered all year.
(Busch's blast was his 11th, and the bruising sophomore is now slashing .317/.462/.555. As the trend in baseball is to put your most productive hitters in the 2-hole, so it is for the stocky 5-10, 207-pounder. His plate discipline is superb, having struck out only 20 times in 164 at-bats, while drawing 37 walks and reaching another 9 times by getting hit with pitches.
Watching UNC batting practice before Sunday's game, Busch's bat speed really stood out, driving the ball to all fields with authority.
Datres' ball was absolutely obliterated, sailing well beyond the left field wall, leaving spectators buzzing. The junior reached four times on the night and is now hitting .352. His presence in the 3-hole forces opponents to pitch to Busch, resulting in one of the best one-two combinations in the country. Defensively, Datres is athletic with plenty of arm. Those attributes were on display Saturday when he charged a bunt, scooped it cleanly before uncorking a laser to nail the runner at first base.)
Entering the 9th the game was still tight at 5-3. However the Heels loaded the bases before CF Brandon Riley singled up the middle, plating two huge runs. UNC added another and took a comfortable 8-3 into the bottom of the 9th.
Head Coach Mike Fox again called on Lancellotti to close the door. However, he was greeted rudely by Wilson, who homered again to open the frame. On the next pitch, 1B Evan Edwards sent another ball into orbit, making it 8-5 Heels.
(Wilson, by the way, is a special talent. He's slashing .307/.389/.596 with 12 homers and 10 doubles. Barreling up two ball against Bergner certainly got the attention of scouts. But defense really mattes at shortstop, and Wilson has all the tools.
He possesses pudding soft hands, good range and an arm that plays from all angles. One play that opened my eyes Saturday was a catch & throw from deep in the hole. The ball came out with velocity & carry, easily beating the runner at first. That answered the last question I had about Wilson. He's legit, and will be fun to watch day-in and day-out in The Cape this summer, playing for the Harwich Mariners.)
Exit Lancellotti, enter RHP Brett Daniels. On his third pitch, freshman catcher Patrick Bailey belted an opposite field homer and suddenly it was 8-6 Heels with no outs. Daniels, however, stiffened, striking out Brock Deatherage and Terrell Tatum before ending the game on a groundout.
With a series win in hand, the Heels looked to sweep their cross-town rivals on Sunday behind another highly recruited sophomore, RHP Tyler Baum.
The Tar Heel offense jumped out for two quick runs to open the game. LF Dallas Tesser took Pack starter Johnny Piedmonte's first pitch and drove it for a double. 1B Micheal Busch attacked the next pitch and smoked a hard grounder that Piedmonte snagged, wheeled and caught Tesser off second base. Following a Datres walk and Riley single, Ike Freeman came to the plate with the bases juiced.
Freeman popped one up behind the first base bag, and a drifting 2B J.T. Jarrett made the catch while losing his balance. The burly Busch took off for home and crashed into Pack catcher Jack Conley, jarring the ball loose and scoring the games first run.
A scuffle ensued, emptying both benches, including the NC State bullpen, before order was restored. Game on!
Photo courtesy of The News & Observer
Like Bergner, Baum has been inconsistent this season, and it was clear early this wasn't his day. He faced only 7 batters over 1+ innings, hitting three with pitches, inducing a pop-out, striking out two & allowing Deatherage's lowering fly ball to left drift out of the park. Mike Fox wasted no time in taking the ball out of Baum's hands. He'd call on his bullpen to deliver 8 innings of work toward sweeping the series.
Baum remains a mystery. A highly athletic, fast twitch kid, Baum was 6-0 in '17, with a 2.65 ERA and .213 OBA in Chappel Hill. He then starred in the Cape Cod League for Harwich, finishing 5-1, with a 2.72 ERA and walking only 10 in 43 innings. Much was expected of him entering this season.
Command has been his main problem, walking 27 batters in 54 innings, unleashing 10 wild pitches, hitting 7 batters and allowing 14 doubles. At times his loose windup and delivery appears out of sync, affecting his release point.
Fox gave the ball to freshman LFP Caden O'Brien, who comes at you straight over-the-top & creating some deception with a herk-an-jerk delivery He was solid through 4 full innings before being spelled by RHP Rodney Hutchison for two innings and imposing freshman RHP Ben Casparius for the last two.
Heel pitchers did allow 8 walks and 6 hits but continually worked out of difficult jams.
In the 6th NC State had runners on 1st & 2nd with one out before Hutchison came back to whiff Kinneman & Wilson, ending the threat.
After scoring one run on a wild pitch in the 8th, the Pack trailed only 5-4 to start their final frame. After two quick outs, Casparius walked three straight batters, loading the bases and bringing the Pack fans to the edge of their seats. But on a 2-2 pitch, Stephen Pitarra flied out to end the game securing the first sweep of the Wolfpack ever for the Heels while ending NC State streak of 10 straight ACC series wins, and 13 overall.
In total, North Carolina played opportunistic baseball, ran the bases well, made no errors over the last 25 innings and leveraged their deep bullpen well in narrowly outscoring the Pack 19-15. When it mattered, that pitching staff made big pitches.
For NC State, an inability to deliver a key hit was their downfall. Friday they left 10 runners on base and stranded 14 more Sunday. Both were one-run losses. All told, Pack hitters were 2-26 with runners in scoring position. They struck out 37 times, including 8 from slugger Brett Kinneman, who never got untracked, going 1-13 in the series.
Defensively, the Pack committed six errors, leading to four unearned runs. They left scratching their heads and thinking what could have been.
With just two ACC series left for both teams, UNC (RPI 4) is in the drivers seat to host a Regional with a good chance of a Top-8 National Seed. They conclude ACC play at Duke (RPI 22) then host Virginia Tech (RPI 137).
Two questions regarding UNC are the status of starting pitcher Luca Dalatri & closer Josh Hiatt.
Dalatri, a workhorse in '17, was expected to fill the Friday slot left open following the departure of J.B. Bukauskas in the MLB draft. However, he was shelved after two ineffective early appearances with a stress reaction in his elbow. While not needing Tommy John surgery, the Tar Heels have been justifiably cautious with Dalatri and his return. Pitching coach Robert Woodard said the right-hander is throwing now from 200', but no timetable exists for his return.
Hiatt was suspended indefinitly just prior to the Wolfpack series for "conduct detrimental to the team". No timetable exists for Hiatt either. "We have very high standards", said Woodard.
NC State (RPI 14) now finds themselves in a dog fight to host a Regional. Friday's loss with their 5th in the last 6 ACC openers. They may have found the answer in Johnston, leaving Brown on Saturday's and Piedmonte on Sundays.
There is some concern about swing & miss with the Wolfpack. Deatherage, Kinneman and Edwards have 136 combined strikeouts. Freshman Terrell Tatum, who DH'ed Friday and Saturday, has 30 K's in just 61 AB's.
This weekend NC State entertains William & Mary (RPI 225) before ending the regular season vs Wake Forest (RPI 77) and at Florida State (RPI 12)
ACC Review - Locks for the Post Season
Clemson (34-11; 17-7; RPI 7) swept Virginia on the road and has now won 8 straight. SS Logan Davison has a 6-game hitting streak, including 5 doubles, two homers and 8 RBI. Catcher Kyle Wilkie is on a torrid 11 game streak (18/41), with 13 RBI.
While he struggled a bit earlier in the year, premium closer Ryley Gilliam is mowing down batters in ACC play. Over 15 innings, Gilliam has not allowed a run, striking out 21 and muting opposing bats to the tune of .085 batting average.
Up next is a visit from Florida State (RPI 12) followed by a non-conference weekend vs Austin Peay before closing the regular season at Pitt (RPI 94)
Duke (33-11; 15-8, RPI 22) won a road series at Virginia Tech and remains in the hunt to host a Regional. Significantly, pre-season All-American Griffin Conine is finding his stroke and is on a tear over his last 6 ACC games, going 11-23 including two prodigious homers.
Pitching and defense continue to serve the Blue Devils well. They're 3rd in fewest ACC runs allowed and are fielding at a .980 clip, suggesting some slump resistance. In fact, only once have they lost back-to-back games, a brief three-game skid to East Carolina and two to NC State last weekend.
Florida State (31-14; 13-10, RPI 12). The Seminoles won a series vs rival Miami, losing Sunday and preventing head coach Mike Martin from notching his 1,976 career win. That will come soon enough, and when it does, Martin will pass Augie Garrido as the winningest coach in college baseball history.
With a team ERA of 5.38 and an uncharacteristically sloppy defense (.968 fielding percentage), the Noles haven't exactly lit up ACC play, but still have their eyes on hosting a regional if they can win their last two ACC series, at Clemson & vs NC State to close the regular season.
Some Meat Left on The Bone
Louisville (29-14; 10-11, RPI 49). The Cardinals won a non-conference series vs. Indiana State, an accomplishment that did nothing to help their post-season chances. They're RPI is tamped down by playing the 240th ranked non-conference strength-of-schedule
Their remaining ACC series are not terribly challenging, with road trips to Boston College (RPI 172) and Pitt (RPI 94) before closing the season at home vs Notre Dame (RPI 105). While those opponents won't boost the Cardinal RPI as much as they'd like, getting to 16 or 17 conference wins will probably be enough to gain a Regional spot.
Pitching is this year's calling card for Louisville, as they lead ACC play with a 3.39 ERA. Freshman LHP Bobby Miller has entered the weekend rotation and has been plain nasty, sporting a 0.92 ERA on the year, allowing only 4 extra-base hits over 39.1 innings.
Offensively, the story has been freshman 1B Logan Wyatt. He slashing .338/.487/.530 with 18 doubles.
Georgia Tech (24-21; 11-13, RPI 56) Despite one of the conferences top offenses, the Jackets find themselves outside looking in at this point. They'll probably need to sweep their remaining 6 ACC games to have a shot, at Virginia and at home and vs Duke to close the season
Needing a Miracle
Wake Forest (20-25; 11-13, RPI 77). The Deacs main issue is getting to a .500 overall record. Running the table gets them to 30-25 & 17-13 in ACC. Anything short of that, and/or winning the ACC Tournament, and they're probably toast.
Miami (18-25; 11-13, RPI 71). It's hard to believe the Jim Morris era will end this way, missing the post-season each of the last two years, the only seasons among 25 total his teams won't play in post season. They probably need to win the ACC tourney to gain a berth.
Virginia (24-20; 9-15, RPI 85). Injuries wrecked this season almost before it started and the 2015 National Championship seems a long time ago. Win the ACC Tourney or go home.
Already Making Summer Plans
Notre Dame (20-24; 10-14, RPI 105)
Virginia Tech (18-26; 8-16, RPI 137)
Boston College (15-28; 6-18, RPI 172