After having its first series of the season canceled when Kentucky’s program faced COVID-19 contract tracing protocols, the North Carolina baseball team was forced to quickly find a replacement opponent before opening weekend.
After a few days of searching, James Madison University was able to fill in and will be UNC’s new opponent for Feb. 19 to 21. After their series against JMU, and barring any additional COVID-19-related rescheduling, the Tar Heels will adjust to face their first ACC opponent of the young season in the No. 16 Virginia Cavaliers. Let’s take a look at how these two teams stack up on the field.
Despite the loss of first baseman Aaron Sabato — who led the team in home runs and slugging percentage last year — to the Minnesota Twins in the first round of last year’s MLB draft, the Tar Heels still have ample talent for making a deep run in the ACC Tournament.
UNC returns redshirt sophomore outfielder Angel Zarate, who appeared in all 19 of the Tar Heels’ games last season. He also led the team in batting average and stolen bases last year, as well as being tied with Sabato for the most RBIs.
Junior second baseman Mikey Madej and sophomore shortstop Danny Serretti are both back this season, each of whom started all 19 games last year.
North Carolina also returns a solid pitching arsenal that largely contributed to UNC’s opponents being held to a .207 batting average last season.
Junior Joey Lancellotti, sophomore Caden O’Brien and sophomore Kyle Mott all had 20-plus strikeout and sub-four ERA seasons in 2020, and will provide an abundance of options for head coach Scott Forbes in his first year at the helm.
The Cavaliers went 14-4 last season, good for the best record in the ACC's Coastal division. UVA will look to pick up where last year’s shortened season left off, with all eight of their starting hitters returning this season.
As a team, the ‘Hoos batted .309, which was the fourth-best in the ACC, trailing only Louisville, N.C. State and Boston College.
Sophomore outfielder Chris Newell was arguably Virginia’s primary offensive threat last year, possessing a .407 batting average and 20 RBIs, along with eight stolen bases — all team highs. Junior infielder Zack Gelof led the team in slugging percentage last year, with 13 of his 22 hits being for extra bases.
Also worth noting is the Cavaliers' plate vision, as seven of their eight starting batters from last year had on-base percentages over .400, which could challenge even North Carolina’s pitching staff.
Additionally, Virginia brings back the majority of its pitchers from last season and will look to improve upon its already solid .230 opponent batting average from a year ago.
Senior Griff McGarry had a 1.35 ERA, a team-high 31 strikeouts and an ACC-best .079 opponent batting average in 2020. Junior Mike Vasil was also impressive, owning a 2.45 ERA and 23 strikeouts.
All things considered, this matchup is poised to be a challenge for the Tar Heels. Virginia is considered to be a College World Series contender by pundits including Baseball America and the NCAA’s staff of baseball writers.
The first game of the three-game set is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 26, when these two teams will finally meet after last year’s canceled series.