On Tuesday, the Diamond Heels will return to the ACC Baseball Championship, hosted in Charlotte, N.C. at Truist Field. After not making it out of pool play last season, UNC will look to bounce back in this year’s conference tournament. To do so, however, will be no easy feat. This season of ACC baseball has been especially competitive, as the conference currently hosts five teams ranked amongst the top 20 in the nation.
The tournament divides the ACC’s top twelve teams into four pools of round-robin play. In Pool A, UNC is paired with No. 1 seed Virginia Tech and No. 12 seed Clemson. UNC will face Clemson on Tuesday and Virginia Tech on Friday, and the Tar Heels will need to win both games to advance to the semifinals on Saturday.
Here is a preview of these two matchups, and the keys to a UNC victory in each:
Clemson, 7 p.m. Tuesday
Clemson finished conference play within the Atlantic Division of the ACC with a 13-16 record. The Tigers' record and low seed are a bit misleading, though, as 10 of their 16 conference losses came to teams currently ranked in the top 20.
The Clemson roster hosts a myriad of talented players, including ACC Player of the Year Max Wagner, a sophomore infielder who leads his team with a .379 batting average. The Tigers’ explosive offensive capabilities, led by Wagner, are something the Diamond Heels will have to combat as best they can come Tuesday.
“They got a player on their team (Wagner) that’s got 25-plus home runs with 70-plus RBIs,” UNC head coach Scott Forbes said. “They’ve been really good offensively. They have a lot of RBIs and a lot of home runs — over 90 (home runs).”
Though Clemson has been on the wrong end of most conference series played against ranked opponents, the team has won series against Wake Forest, Boston College, Florida State and Georgia Tech — a team that bested UNC back in April.
On the defensive side, Clemson has a formidable frontline arm in sophomore right-handed pitcher Mack Anglin. The No. 72 preseason prospect for the 2022 MLB Draft according to Perfect Game, Anglin has a 6-5 record on the season. He leads the Tigers with 74 strikeouts recorded thus far, behind a reliable fastball that tops out at 96 mph.
Though the starting pitchers for either team are still undetermined as of now, one of the Diamond Heels' biggest tasks, along with shutting down the Tiger’s offensive firepower, will be scouting an ACC opponent that they haven’t played this season.
“It’ll be a tough task for sure,” Forbes said. “We haven’t played them and they haven’t played us, so I’m excited about that. They have a rich tradition and we have a rich tradition. But the thing that sticks out the most is how good they’ve been offensively.”
Virginia Tech, 7 p.m. Friday
In what should be the more competitive matchup of the week, the Diamond Heels will face a Virginia Tech squad that is ranked No. 2 in the nation. The No. 1 overall seed in the ACC Championship, the Hokies boast a 19-9 conference record. Besides an early-season sweep at the hands of Georgia Tech, the Hokies have not lost an ACC series.
“You have to give them a lot of credit, it’s hard to win our league overall and they won our division,” Forbes said. “They’re hard to match up against from the standpoint of they hit right-handers and left-handers, and they distribute them throughout the order."
In UNC’s last matchup against the Hokies, which was back in early April, the Tar Heels dropped the first two games of the series, 12-1 and 7-3, before bouncing back in the third game with a 10-6 win.
In the game three victory over the Hokies, UNC left-handed pitcher Brandon Schaeffer recorded the save for the Tar Heels. The junior currently posts a 4.15 ERA and 6-2 win-loss record, and will earn the start for UNC this Friday against Virginia Tech.
In a game against a highly-ranked Hokies squad with the third-best team ERA in the ACC, UNC’s ability to bring home runners in scoring position and play small ball will be key to an upset victory.
Forbes pointed towards the recent Florida State series as an example of his team's offensive potential.
“We had good situational hitting, especially with runners on third base and less than two outs, and got those runs in almost every time," Forbes said. "That’s what it takes when you’re playing a good team. The good thing for us is we lost some of those games that were really close, but now we’re finding ways to win those games.”