Pitching depth and clutch hits might have been scarce for the North Carolina baseball team last season, but in the Tar Heels' 5-1 win over Elon Tuesday, it looked like those weaknesses were left in the dust.
With the help of some stellar pitching efforts and a resilient offensive approach, North Carolina bounced back after going down early, fighting hard until the end.
During their season-opening sweep of Seton Hall last weekend, the Tar Heels only allowed six runs while scoring 40, but they had to battle a little harder in its in-state battle against the Phoenix.
But now, heading into their weekend series against No. 25 East Carolina, the Diamond Heels are battle-tested, which they hope will pay dividends against a tough Pirates team.
“This weekend we didn’t have close games but tonight, it was a dog fight," sophomore pitcher Connor Bovair said. "Coach preaches that we are going to have those and to be able to pull away with a win like that, I think it's a good team booster going into the weekend.”
After watching starter Will Sandy work through the first four innings, Bovair stepped right in.
With a one-run lead in the top of the fifth, he kept the Phoenix bats silent, striking out seven in three innings of work to give his team a chance to expand its lead.
Having young players like Bovair contribute in this way was part of pitching coach Bryant Gaines' plan to keep the Elon batters guessing.
“Coach Gaines was calling a good game and keeping them off-balance,” Bovair said. “I was able to throw the fastball on the corners of the plate which kind of froze them a little bit, and my curveball was really working tonight.”
After leaving four runners on base in the first half of the game, the Tar Heel bats also benefited from the momentum that Bovair’s stellar outing brought, cutting that number in half in the later innings. Behind the Siena College transfer’s command on the mound, the North Carolina offense worked to tack on three more late runs and separate from the Phoenix.
Led by sophomore Johnny Castagnozzi, who finished with four RBIs, UNC got the big hits when they were needed most.
“I thought we had good at-bats all night,” head coach Scott Forbes said. “We didn’t get that big, big hit, but we did towards the end and that's when it matters the most. We didn’t do that much last year.”
Castagnozzi’s two-run double in the fourth got things going for North Carolina and his homer in the eighth sealed the deal, sending Chapel Hill fans home happy.
The hits may not have been abundant early, but a consistent and resilient approach at the plate — along with some lights-out pitching — helped the Tar Heels power through on a night where they had to dig a little deeper to secure the victory.
“The biggest at-bats are at the end of the game,” Castagnozzi said. “You just have to stay locked in no matter what you did the first two or three at-bats and be ready for that last one.”
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