Late Tuesday evening, following UNC baseball’s loss to N.C. A&T, UNC head coach Scott Forbes entered the player’s lounge with a nonchalant stroll.
Grasping a water cup in one hand and a few pretzel bites in the other, Forbes greeted the reporters with a brief nod before taking a seat in the padded blue chair in front of them.
“How are y’all doing?” Forbes asked. “Better than me?”
A printed game summary was slid across the embellished glass table in front of Forbes, and he placed his snack down to grab it. Eyes running line-by-line, glancing over the rows of data, one number surely stood out.
That’s the number of runs UNC allowed in the top of the fourth inning on Tuesday. All but one of the Aggies’ runs came in that inning, which proved to be the deciding factor for the Tar Heels in their 7-6 loss to A&T.
“It think it boils down to the same thing it’s been boiling down to — the starting pitching and giving up big innings,” Forbes said. “It’s just hard in baseball to win games 8-7. You can’t count on many high-scoring games.”
UNC has struggled to find a reliable starting rotation, or even a single reliable starter, this season. This was highlighted in Tuesday’s game, in which North Carolina had to rely on five different pitchers. In the fourth inning alone, UNC used a combination of starter Shaddon Peavyhouse, sophomore lefty Shawn Rapp and junior righty Kyle Mott to little avail.
The pinnacle of this disastrous fourth inning? A grand slam by A&T’s Cort Maynard, which brought the Aggies out to a 5-2 lead, and signaled a decisive momentum shift in the game. It was a grand slam brought on by a walk, two singles and a mishap on a bunt play in front of home plate.
“I’m not as concerned about the home runs as I am how they get the runners on base,” Forbes said. “The bunt situation is a great example. That’s just a routine play, and (Eric) Grintz doesn’t make it. And that’s another baserunner and then it’s a grand slam. If it’s not a grand slam, it might be a three-run home run and we might still be playing.”
In the midst of the Aggies run in the top of the fourth, Forbes stepped out to the mound to make the second pitching change of the inning, calling Mott in for Rapp.
As the team gathered around Forbes in the infield, he reminded them all that there was a lot of game left to play, and they had to remain focused on the tangibles — you just have to make 27 outs.
“Can’t really do too much about it,” redshirt junior Angel Zarate said of the six-run inning. “I always tell myself, if there’s ever a walk or ever an error or something, to think of something good. I can’t be out there pouting. I’m always trying to say something positive like, ‘Throw a play ball right here.’ Nothing good comes out of being negative. So after seeing all those runs, I’m like, ‘Alright, they’re scoring runs, we can do the same thing.’”
And the Tar Heels showed it.
Less than two innings later, in the bottom of the sixth, UNC saw a brief offensive spark that looked to be promising. After a double from Zarate, junior shortstop Danny Serretti knocked a home run to left centerfield that scored the two of them.
Later that same inning, sophomore third baseman Mac Horvath blasted a deep shot to the left pillar of UNC’s scoreboard, bringing the crowd to its feet as he rounded all the bases. At this point, the score was 6-5, and the Tar Heels were desperately clawing back.
After giving up another run in the top of the seventh, a solo shot from sophomore designated hitter Alberto Osuna brought UNC within one run again in the bottom of the eighth.
But still, it didn’t matter.
After that six-run fourth inning, seemingly nothing the Tar Heels tried mattered. Three home runs weren’t enough. A six-strikeout performance from their closer, Caden O’Brien, wasn’t enough. The game had already been decided, way back in the fourth inning.
“I feel like this season we’ve been punched in the mouth a lot,” Osuna said. “Going back into the game, we didn’t have to score all the runs at once, just chip away and chip away. We didn’t get there, but if we just keep on playing I feel like at some point we’ll get over that hump."
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