UNC baseball coach Scott Forbes has a new puzzle to tinker with: his pitching rotation.
After dropping back-to-back ACC series at home to Miami and Boston College, the Tar Heels are left to deal with their issue of inconsistent pitching and short stints on the mound.
Junior Max Carlson came into the season as the Tar Heels' Friday starter, but his inability to get ground balls and strikeouts led Forbes down another path. Five other pitchers took the helm in the 10-inning 9-8 loss to Boston College last Friday night.
On Saturday, starter Connor Bovair, who came off a poor outing against Miami, lasted into the eighth inning and held the Eagles to two runs. It was only the second time in Bovair’s career that he has pitched into the eighth inning — a length that Forbes has been searching for out of his starters.
Forbes announced after the 9-4 loss to Boston College that Bovair will slide into Friday’s spot and Carlson will drop out of the starting rotation and move into the bullpen.
Junior catcher Tomas Frick believes that Carlson moving to the bullpen will help bridge the gap between the middle innings and the closing innings, providing the Diamond Heels with a reliable presence later in games.
“I think Carlson will come out and kind of let it go more,” Frick said.
Against ECU and Stony Brook earlier in the season, Carlson totaled 16 strikeouts and two earned runs across 14.1 innings. Since then, however, Carlson has let up nine home runs and has an ERA that's nearly double his 2022 number.
Forbes hopes the switch to the bullpen will flip a switch in Carlson and allow him to play like his “hair’s on fire."
Bovair, on the other hand, has come out of the woodwork and become a game-changer for the Tar Heels. Last year, the junior found himself in between a permanent starting spot and being a talented reliever, navigating issues with nibbling around the strike zone and being timid.
“Last year being able to pitch in every role gave me the ability to go into this year with a way of being comfortable in each role,” Bovair said. “And luckily enough I was able to start each weekend so far. I think that each weekend I get more and more confident with my stuff and my ability."
Through Bovair’s 10 appearances, the righty has 45 strikeouts, 16 walks and one of the lowest ERAs among the team's consistent starters.
After the win against UNCW on Tuesday, Forbes said the pitching rotation for the upcoming Virginia Tech series will be Bovair, Knapp and another player “to be assigned."
Kevin Eaise, Matt Poston and Dalton Pence are all likely options.
Eaise, the 2022 Ivy League Pitcher of the Year, has exceeded expectations since transferring to Chapel Hill. He has become de facto closer and go-to man for tough situations. Forbes also relies heavily on Poston, his other late-game pitcher who currently posts a 1.47 ERA in his 22 appearances. Pence earned his third win on Tuesday night after going two innings and allowing four hits and striking out four. His stint on the mound was followed by Carlson’s first relief appearance as a Tar Heel.
But, no matter how tough his pitching puzzle gets and no matter what changes are made in the starting rotation, Forbes has not lost hope.
“You got to figure that out as a coach, you got to be honest with them,” Forbes said after getting swept by Boston College. “Of course, of course. I mean, I'm never not going to have hope.”
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