"Just an unbelievably disappointing weekend, and I don’t think I saw that coming."
That's how North Carolina head coach Mike Fox summed up the UNC baseball team's weekend series against Notre Dame to open conference play, a sweep by the Fighting Irish that was capped off with a 14-8 win over the Tar Heels on Sunday.
The sweep wasn't for a lack of offense, though. North Carolina scored 21 runs in three days but allowed 33, leaving the team with a 3-5 record in its last eight games.
“When you go back and you score five runs on Friday, eight runs on Saturday, eight on Sunday, I mean, you think you should win two, if not three," Aaron Sabato said.
Sabato himself had a hand in a number of those runs throughout the series. After batting just .224 in the 14 games leading up to Notre Dame, everything started to click for the first baseman when he crushed two home runs over the left field wall on Friday.
“I wasn’t swinging at balls out of the zone, I wasn’t chasing pitches and I was swinging at pitches that I wanted," Sabato said. "I just wasn’t putting good swings on it. It comes down to just being better.”
In response, the Fighting Irish decided to play it safe on Saturday by walking the sophomore four times, but that didn't stop him from scoring a pair of late runs in the seventh and eighth innings.
Early in Sunday's matchup the sweep looked all but guaranteed when Notre Dame took a 7-1 lead in the third inning. That's when Sabato stepped up to the dish and launched a solo home run over left field with two outs.
“It kind of got us on our toes a little bit, wanting to keep fighting to try to get a W," Mikey Madej said.
Sabato's homer sparked a comeback effort from the Tar Heels, who put up five runs in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game, 7-7. In the middle of UNC's run, it was Sabato's turn to bat again, but Notre Dame's Liam Simon walked the sophomore in five pitches, choosing to load the bases with no outs rather than risk a three-run slam from Sabato.
"Just gotta get people on base, try to get him up and that’s what happened when we had that five-run inning," Madej said. "We had bases loaded with Aaron up, no outs and scored all three runs. We’re never out of the game.”
Even after a pair of three-run innings by the Fighting Irish that left UNC down 14-8 in the bottom of the eighth, the Tar Heels never felt like they were out of it.
“If you go into the eighth and ninth and you feel defeated, then you might as well not even try," Sabato said. "You might as well not even go out. Just tell the other team they win.”
And with Sabato stepping up to bat in the bottom of the eight with a runner on first, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for North Carolina to make another rally. Until, on the eighth pitch of his at-bat, Sabato lofted a fly ball right into the center fielder's glove for an easy out.
"It is what it is," Sabato said. "It's the baseball gods. It looked like really nothing was going our way."
Unlike in Saturday's game, the Tar Heels' well of late attempts to rally for a win had run dry by Sunday, with Sabato's re-emergence as one of the best hitters in the country being UNC's only bright spot arising from an abysmal series.
And with a series against Duke — ranked in the top 15 by Collegiate Baseball and D1Baseball.com — on the horizon next weekend, the first baseman couldn't be peaking at a better time for the Tar Heels.
“I’m just getting locked in," Sabato said.
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