After falling behind early in its last three contests, the North Carolina baseball team reversed its fortunes Friday night against rival N.C. State.
Although Tuesday's loss to Pitt eliminated the No. 6 seed Tar Heels from the semifinals of the ACC Tournament, Friday's game gave them one last chance to prove themselves worthy of an at-large bid in front of a big in-state crowd in Charlotte.
For a young team that has come up short in many key situations this year, Friday was a different story for the Tar Heels — but head coach Scott Forbes has not been shy about his team's struggles with runners in scoring position this season.
“To get the bases loaded with no outs — it’s been a year where we’ve gotten them loaded with no outs ... and early in the season, I think we were at Pitt — and you get one (run),” Forbes said. “You come in the dugout and say that's probably gonna getcha.”
After having the bases juiced early in the first inning on Friday, UNC did not return to the dugout scoreless. Forbes' team put up six runs to take a big, early lead.
First-year third baseman Mac Horvath led the charge for the Tar Heels from his first at-bat.
With one run already on the board in the first, Horvath grabbed the big blast that the Tar Heels had been missing — hitting the team’s first grand slam since April 2019. It barely snuck over the left field fence, but it was all the team needed to turn things around at the plate.
The umpires initially ruled the hit in-play, but a review following a challenge by Forbes changed the call to a home run.
“I hit the ball and I saw it going, and I think I touched first and I saw it bounce and I was like, 'Is that not a home run?'" Horvath said. “I was like, 'You have to challenge that,' because it’s the difference between four runs and one, and it turned out in our favor.”
After the early offensive onslaught in the first, the Tar Heels were not done.
A pair of young Tar Heel batters tacked on two more in the second — with Horvath driving in another run off of a single through the left side of the infield and first-year catcher Tomas Frick coming through with an RBI double down the left field line to extend the lead to 8-0.
The Tar Heel bats cooled off for a while, allowing the Wolfpack to cut the lead to five in the bottom of the third, but Horvath was not done yet.
In the top of the fourth, the first-year plated his season-high sixth RBI of the day off of a sacrifice fly to score sophomore Caleb Roberts from third base.
The Wolfpack made things interesting later in the game, cutting the lead to 9-6 in the eighth, but Horvath and his team’s early offensive firepower ended up being the deciding factor in the crucial win for the Tar Heels.
For a young but highly sought-after prospect who struggled early in the season, Friday night marked progress for Horvath and his teammates, but there is still work to be done.
“Obviously N.C. State is always a big in-state rivalry between us two,” Horvath said. “I think moving forward, it’s definitely a big boost for us and we’re playing well. We still have things to work on, but it's always good to leave here at least with a win and on a good note.”
The Tar Heels sure left Charlotte on a good note. Horvath's performance might have just saved the Tar Heels' season, as they were selected as one of the last four into the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon.
After falling short of some key opportunities this season, the young Tar Heel bats came through when they were needed most, and now they have a chance to show the college baseball world what they can do Friday night as the third seed in the Lubbock Regional against the UCLA Bruins.