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Diamond Heels make adjustments to confront consistency issues ahead of Miami series

UNC redshirt first-year Casey Cook (16) fist-bumps assistant coach Jason Howell (37) after making it to first base during the baseball game against Costal Carolina on Tuesday, March 27, 2023, at Boshamer Stadium.

There is no such thing as an ugly win in baseball, according to UNC Head Coach Scott Forbes. But if there were, he thinks it would be the Tar Heels’ 10-6 win over Queens University. 

While the Tar Heels ended Tuesday’s contest on top, the game represented a problem that has been bugging the team for the past few weeks: consistency. 

“That’s the golden question of baseball — how to put it all together,” junior Patrick Alvarez said. “I don't know, really. Just trusting. Trusting that the pitchers will pick us up when hitters aren't doing well and vice versa.”

Lineup adjustments

Over the past few weeks, Forbes has toyed around with the batting order to try to maximize UNC’s offensive output. Junior Johnny Castagnozzi is out for the foreseeable future with an injury, so Mac Horvath will be rounding out the infield at third base, and Alvarez will take the left outfield spot. 

The most noticeable change to the order is the movement of redshirt first-year Casey Cook and sophomore Vance Honeycutt. Cook moved from six-hole to the leadoff spot, and Honeycutt moved from leadoff to cleanup.

Forbes hopes the change will lead to more RBIs for Honeycutt. Even with his .268 batting average on the lower side of the lineup, the sophomore star has been walked more than anyone else and has chipped in defensively with two SportsCenter Top 10-worthy home run robberies.

“We feel like Vance has been really close," Forbes said. "His batting average is a little misleading. He's really good with runners in scoring position, but he hadn't been up a lot with runners in scoring position in that leadoff spot.”

Since the start of ACC play, Cook is slashing .382/.478/.421 and reached base in all of those games. He hasn't had consecutive hitless games all year.

When Cook is in the leadoff spot, Alvarez and junior Colby Wilkerson bat eight and nine, with the latter drawing 26 walks on the season and Alvarez leading the team in batting average. Their propensity to get on base allows Cook to not just do the job of a traditional leadoff, but also bat runs in.

“Sometimes it doesn't even feel like I'm leading off because I'm coming up with guys on base all the time,” Cook said.

Season storylines

The Diamond Heels haven't found the consistency they've hoped for throughout the season and that's plagued the team in big games.

The bullpen gave up game-deciding runs in games against East Carolina and Coastal Carolina, and the offense could not plate any runs against South Carolina despite sophomore Dalton Pence throwing four scoreless innings.

But when it comes to the consistency problem, nothing has been rockier than the bullpen. Forbes trotted out 11 pitchers against Queens but said he is working on narrowing down his top “eight guys.”

“I do feel like we're starting to zero in more,” Forbes said. “And Dalton is going to be a big part of that bullpen. He could also start if we needed him to, but we feel like with Dalton, (Matt) Poston and (Kevin) Eaise, you know that's a pretty good back-end, competent combination.”

Forbes said he's also looking for production out of first-year arms Cameron Padgett and Matthew Matthijs. 

Padgett is a middle reliever with a 3.37 ERA in 18.2 innings pitched, letting up 20 hits and striking out 12. Matthijs, who has worked more in later frames, posted a 1.35 ERA through 13.1 innings pitched with 20 strikeouts, with Forbes turning to the righty in multiple high-pressure situations. 

But the Diamond Heels haven't found, as Forbes puts it, their “knockout punch.” Going into late April and May, the team will look for a person to put away games and close out series. 

Weekend preview

The Diamond Heels will take on their second ranked ACC team this season in a home matchup against the Miami Hurricanes.

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Miami is coming to Boshamer Stadium after dropping three straight games to No. 7 ranked Virginia. The Hurricanes, however, have swept an ACC series – something the Tar Heels have not – and are ranked in the top 25 by both Baseball America and the USA Today Coaches Poll.

Alvarez said the series can be won if the Diamond Heels come together and play their version of baseball. 

“At the end of the day, we're one team, so I think we got the guys that can all get it done,” Alvarez said. “And I think when we play teams like Miami in the ACC, we play up to our potential, but when we play in other teams, we need to keep that rolling.”

The home series begins Thursday at 7 p.m., with games scheduled on Friday and Saturday.


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