Two major themes have been prevalent this season when measuring some of the struggles that this young Tar Heel baseball team has faced in 2021.
First off, the Tar Heels have struggled to find reliable starters behind ace Austin Love, after losing junior Joey Lancellotti and first-year Max Carlson early in the season.
Since then, head coach Scott Forbes has been trying to piece together starts here and there to give his team the best chance to win, as he did Tuesday night, but starting pitching once again came up short of what the first-year coach was hoping.
“When your starters besides Love just aren’t giving you innings, it's hard to count on those relievers that need to go two innings, to go three or four, and that’s what we’ve had to do, unfortunately,” Forbes said.
Second, the Tar Heels have also struggled to come back in games where they have trailed after the seventh inning. Many teams struggle to win games late, but the Tar Heels have yet to come back in one of these situations all season long.
The runners have been there for UNC, as they were again Tuesday night, but the big hits have been hard to come by in the later innings this year.
“It seems like we’ve gotten runners out there, but we just have not been able to get that big hit late in the game,” Forbes said. “It's not that our guys aren't trying or competing, they just haven’t gotten it.”
Tuesday night, Pittsburgh was able to separate itself from the Tar Heels with a two-run home run in the top of the eighth off the bat of junior Ron Washington Jr. to put the Panthers up 5-2. His big homer ended up contributing the deciding runs on opening day of the ACC Tournament.
The Tar Heels were able to grab one run in the bottom half of the inning, but they were shut down in the ninth and ended up falling short of the Panthers by two runs 5-3.
The tough loss Tuesday night eliminated the Tar Heels from a chance at advancing to the next round of the tournament, but they have one more key opportunity to fix some of their mistakes and to show the NCAA Tournament Committee that they are worthy of an at-large bid on Friday night against their rival, NC State.
There is a two-day layoff between games for the Tar Heels, but they are not letting that affect their game plan heading into Friday night.
“We’re not going to let the layoff affect how we are going to play,” sophomore Caleb Roberts said. “We’re just going to go back to work, practice, and lift the next two days and then we will come out ready. We are both in-state teams, so there should be a good amount of people and we’ll be ready to go.”
Roberts and his squad have some pressure with one more shot to prove themselves to the college baseball world as conference tournaments wrap up and the NCAA Tournament takes shape, but they are not letting the moment get too big.
The young team has fought through a lot of adversity this season, and redshirt sophomore Angel Zarate realizes the importance of keeping an even head as things heat up.
“I think we just need to go out there and try to have some fun, just embrace it,” Zarate said. “We are at the Charlotte Knights stadium, playing NC State and it's going to be a good game. It's probably going to be a packed house at seven o'clock at night. Really, what more could you ask for?"