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Johnny Castagnozzi's shift to third base makes UNC more dynamic in Duke series win

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UNC junior Johnny Castagnozzi celebrates his home run against Duke on Saturday, March 25, 2023. North Carolina won 5-3. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

As UNC junior infielder Johnny Castagnozzi stood on second base, moments after ripping a two-run double down the left field line to tie North Carolina’s second game against Duke on Friday, he celebrated by hitting the mano a borsa motion with his hand. 

Castagnozzi doesn’t have an exact name for the celebration, other than “it’s like, ‘Fuhgeddaboudit.’” Regardless, the pinched hand gesture appeared several times throughout the weekend in the Tar Heels' series victory over the Blue Devils.

“I’m Italian,” Castagnozzi said. “(Junior pitcher) Nelson Berkwich and I, we cook a lot together. Chicken parm and stuff like that. And he’s like, ‘If you hit a double today, you should do that.’”

Junior Mac Horvath, Castagnozzi’s housemate, said that his teammate is always cooking food for him. While the two often share a meal together, Horvath admits that UNC’s recent fielding shift isn’t a topic of conversation at home.

In the Diamond Heels’ previous game against North Carolina A&T, Castagnozzi started at third base, which pushed Horvath to right field. Following the shift, North Carolina has found an effective lineup that maximizes its offensive potential. In Sunday’s series-clinching 5-3 win over Duke, both Castagnozzi and Horvath went deep, bringing in four runs between the two of them.



Following Castagnozzi’s blast in the fourth, Horvath hit a bomb in the fifth inning. His 3-run homer brought the Tar Heels out to a 5-3 lead and delivered Horvath his 13th home run of the year.

While Horvath has been dominant all season, Castagnozzi is just now easing his way back into the lineup.

The Massapequa, N.Y., native missed the team's first nine games due to a blood clot that he’d been battling since the end of the fall season. Doctors were initially unable to repair the clot and Castagnozzi was placed on blood thinners, which prevented the junior from hitting off machines and taking fielding practice. 

“It was really tough when that all happened,” Horvath said. “He was always positive throughout that whole thing and he just knew he was going to come back and be ready. I’m really proud of him.”

Castagnozzi initially returned to the field at first base before moving over to third. The shift allows UNC to place junior first baseman Hunter Stokely — who currently boasts a .305 batting average — into the lineup. 

Horvath described the transition as smooth. While he had exclusively played third base as a Tar Heel, the junior played some outfield during the summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League as well as in the fall season.

“Johnny’s swinging well. (Hunter) Stokely’s swinging well,” Horvath said. “You want to have as many guys (as you can) that are swinging it well in the lineup. If that means me going to right (field), I’m 100 percent on board with that.”

That being said, there have been some kinks with the new lineup. In Saturday’s 8-5 loss to Duke, Castagnozzi had two of UNC’s season-high four fielding errors.

As Horvath and Castagnozzi warmed up on Saturday and paired together for fungo bat drills, Horvath offered his housemate some advice on a high chopper that Castagnozzi fumbled in Friday’s game, pointing out another option where Castagnozzi could stay back on the groundball and get an easier out at first. This input paid off on Sunday, as Castagnozzi had two putouts at the hot corner.

“Since we were (first-years), we’ve always talked baseball,” Castagnozzi said. “He has helped me over there (at third base) a lot because he’s played there the most, obviously. He’s just helped me with positioning and mindset things. I really appreciate him for doing that because it does help me and it makes me feel a little bit more confident going into the game.”

Head coach Scott Forbes complimented Castagnozzi for bouncing back from his errors in the series’ second game. Forbes admitted that the decision to keep Castagnozzi at third for the final game against Duke kept him up a bit on Friday night. But ultimately, he stuck with the same lineup for offensive purposes. 

“I just felt like he’s older,” Forbes said. “I feel like now he’s more confident and he can recover from mistakes better than he did when he was younger.”

Not one to dwell much on his errors, Castagnozzi smashed a 421-foot home run off of the North Carolina scoreboard to tie the game back up at 2-2 on Saturday. As he rounded third base and jogged towards home plate, several of his teammates hopped the dugout fence. They met him near the dugout, holding up their hands and mimicking the same "Fuhgeddaboudit" gesture.

“It’s starting to spread a little bit more now,” Castagnozzi said. “So that’s a good thing, and if we keep winning, I’ll keep doing it.”

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@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.