On Tuesday night, the No. 8 seeded Diamond Heels made their first appearance at the 2022 ACC Baseball Championship in Charlotte, N.C.
With a commanding 9-2 victory over the No. 12 seeded Clemson Tigers, players like redshirt junior Angel Zarate, sophomore Hunter Stokely, and junior Danny Serretti cover the game’s offensive statistics. However, on the defensive side, one name from Tuesday stands out above the rest — Max Carlson.
As the starting pitcher for the Tar Heels, the sophomore righty forced a groundout and a pop up from Clemson’s Benjamin Blackwell and Will Taylor in the top of the first inning before facing ACC Player of the Year Max Wagner.
Wagner was fanned by Carlson in just four pitches to end Clemson’s first turn at bat. In fact, the sophomore slugger, boasting a .379 batting average on the season, struck out against Carlson three times on Tuesday night.
“In situations like that, with those kinds of guys who are putting up big numbers like that, you can’t be tentative and you really have to go at them,” Carlson said.
This “going at it” mindset is what Carlson credits North Carolina’s success to on Tuesday night.
Zarate scored UNC's first run of the night after Serretti knocked an RBI single to left field.
Clemson was quick to answer with a sacrifice fly in the top of the second inning to score a run of its own. However, it was the only run the Tigers would muster throughout Carlson’s six innings on the mound.
After a pair of runs by Zarate and Stokely for the Tar Heels in the bottom of the second inning, Clemson looked to score again with a single in the top of the third.
Wagner came up to bat, and again Carlson denied him the chance to put his name in the books with another strikeout.
“Max (Wagner) had a tough night tonight.” Clemson head coach Monte Lee said. “It happens in the game of baseball. You have to be humbled, and he was certainly humbled today.”
In the top of the sixth inning, in Carlson's last frame on the mound, Wagner was struck out looking a second time.
Carlson’s pitching through six innings allowed the Diamond Heels’ offense to create and extend their lead, taking some pressure off of relief pitchers Gage Gillian and Davis Palermo in the last three innings of the game.
“I thought ‘Carly’ was the story of the day coming off short rest,” UNC head coach Scott Forbes said. “I was joking with him earlier in the week, since he didn’t pitch great against Florida State, he’d be in great shape. I thought he looked tremendous.”
However, Carlson’s recent success doesn’t come without hard work.
About this time last year, Carlson was sidelined with an elbow injury that Forbes feared would be season-ending. Carlson chose an internal bracing method over the more common Tommy John surgery and spent the next nine months rehabbing in hopes that he would one day pitch again.
He got his first start of the 2022 season against Seton Hall in the second game of the series, pitching for four innings and earning five strikeouts.
Even after returning to the mound, Carlson and the rest of the team hit a rut as UNC dropped five straight conference series earlier in the season. After that rough stretch in the middle of the season, the pitching staff took a step back to look at what they could improve upon.
“For the last week or so Coach (Bryant) Gaines and I have been working on some things, just cleaning up some stuff, and I think that and having a good mindset helped out,” Carlson said.
Mindset is certainly something the team has been working on as a whole, and it's shown, as UNC’s victory marks the squad's fourth-straight conference win.
“After Virginia, the whole group said, ‘Hey, we’re going to play every game like it’s the postseason,” Forbes said. “Now we’re in the postseason, so that makes it easy.”
Despite tonight’s win and the team’s recent success, Carlson isn’t taking any of it for granted.
“When I went down last year, I had absolutely no thought in my mind that I was going to be even playing baseball this year,” he said. “So I just take every day to the fullest. I just go out every day and have fun, and be grateful that I can even be in this situation that I am in.”