UNC’s tradition of producing professional baseball players continued on Monday as three Tar Heels were selected in the 2021 MLB Draft.
The first off the board was redshirt sophomore Austin Love, who was selected in the third round by the St. Louis Cardinals as the 90th overall pick. Love served as the Diamond Heels’ Friday-night starter this past season and was one of the better right-handed pitchers out of the ACC.
Love was a reliable starter who consistently ate up innings for UNC, leading the ACC with 102 innings pitched and tossing two complete games last season while compiling a conference-best 10 wins.
Love’s 129 strikeouts were the second-most in a season in UNC history, just behind Andrew Miller’s 133 in 2006. Miller is now on the Cardinals himself, and UNC retired his #33 uniform number at Boshamer Stadium in 2016.
Despite being used as a starter this past season, Love began his UNC career out of the bullpen. As a redshirt first-year in 2019, he led the team in appearances with 36 and saves with five. Love’s high-velocity fastball and tricky slider give him the potential to return to the bullpen at the professional level.
Sophomore Caleb Roberts was taken in the fifth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Roberts led the team in home runs last season with 10, and his 36 RBIs ranked second on the team. Roberts was primarily a catcher before transitioning to outfield while at UNC.
Roberts is adept at getting on base — his on-base percentage of .442 was the highest among UNC’s consistent starters, and his 44 walks were tied for third-most in the ACC Iast season.
Redshirt sophomore outfielder Justice Thompson, the final of the trio of UNC players to be selected, was taken by the Cincinnati Reds in the seventh round. Thompson came to UNC for just one year after spending his first two collegiate seasons at Northwest Florida State College.
Thompson put on a defensive clinic in center field last season, robbing multiple home runs and pulling off eye-popping diving catches while only committing two errors. Thompson flexed his speed not only in the field but also on the base paths, stealing 15 bases on 17 attempts.
Thompson was formidable at the plate too, batting .304 and knocking seven home runs. But he struggled with breaking balls, leading the team in strikeouts with 67.
This marks the 44th straight season UNC has had a player selected in the draft. UNC has produced 184 draft picks dating back to the first-ever amateur draft in 1965.
And 68 former UNC players have played in the major leagues, the first being Bob Lawson in 1901 with the Boston Beaneaters. Lawson would go on to serve as head coach of UNC baseball and later worked as a professor in the School of Medicine.
It’s no surprise that the Tar Heels have such a long history with Major League Baseball — UNC baseball dates all the way back to 1867, making it one of the school’s oldest sports programs.