Grit, unity, domination and a squeeze play.
All characteristics that describe the Diamond Heels sweep of rival N.C. State — their first home sweep of the Wolfpack since 2006.
The series started off with fireworks, and not ones in the Tar Heels' favor. It was the Wolfpack that took an early lead during the first game of the series, scoring five runs in the first inning with UNC starter Connor Bovair lasting just a third of an inning.
The game was back-and-forth, with N.C. State holding a one-run lead heading into the ninth inning.
The spirit of determination that permeated the series, in the eyes of the Tar Heels, can be summed up by two at-bats of the final frame. Head coach Scott Forbes made the decision to pinch hit Eric Grintz — who only had four at-bats all of April — for designated hitter Alberto Osuna. Grintz played the hero, smashing a triple into right field, bringing the Tar Heels level with the Wolfpack.
“Coach talks all the time that those guys that put in the hard work, they’re going to come through at some point and we’re going to need them,” junior catcher Tomas Frick said. “(Thursday) night you saw that and Grintz was ready for it. And he got it done.”
A play later, junior shortstop Colby Wilkerson laid down a bunt to suicide squeeze in pinch runner Carter French and walk off the game.
“You’re the hero or the goat most of that time when you make that call,” Forbes said following the walk-off win.
That firepower and killer mentality was held by the Tar Heels throughout the remaining two games of the series, showing a distinct difference from the team that got swept at home by Boston College. That Tar Heel team was plagued by the inability to capitalize with runners in scoring position, a defense prone to errors and sluggish pitching — all attributes that were key to beating the Wolfpack.
The grit of the Tar Heels was not only shown in the 30 runs scored throughout the entire weekend, but also in the mettle of the pitching headed by Max Carlson and Jake Knapp.
Carlson, former Friday starter who spent the last few weeks in the bullpen, held the mound for 7.2 innings allowing only two runs on three hits while striking out four. Frick remarked after the announcement of Carlson moving to the bullpen following the Boston College series that the Minnesota native could then pitch freer, or, as Forbes hoped, “with his hair on fire.”
“I think over the last couple weeks I’ve learned to have fun,” Carlson said. “That’s the most important thing about this game, it helped keep me loose and have a lot of fun, be myself.”
Carlson set the tone for the final two games, showing an effective fastball and length, something that Knapp adapted to fit his Saturday start.
Behind Carlson and Knapp was a steady bullpen that stepped up on Thursday when Bovair struggled, and closed out the final innings on Friday and Saturday. Both Kevin Eaise and Ben Peterson saw the mound twice over the course of the weekend, as well as a host of other arms for short stints.
“The bullpen has been rock solid down the stretch," Knapp said. "Bovair had a tough outing but he's been great for us all year, and Carlson is coming back. That is awesome. Pitches getting better, everything's getting better.”
To Forbes, games start and end with defense and pitching, both facets of the game that the Tar Heels excelled in over the course of the weekend.
“I thought our defense this weekend was phenomenal,” Forbes said. “I thought we made unbelievable plays.”
However, it wasn't just the pitching, as the Tar Heels hitters found their groove as well, producing 44 hits throughout the series — including 18 in the final game of the series — and finding success with runners in scoring position, something the Tar Heels have struggled with in the past.
“That's something we talked about before this weekend series,” junior infielder Johnny Castagnozzi said. “Just sticking with your approach throughout the whole at-bat, even, you know if something changes in the at-bat, just sticking with it.”
The N.C. State series marked the first ACC series that the Tar Heels have swept, giving them much-needed momentum before taking on Coastal Carolina and red-hot Clemson on the road. The victory ensures that UNC will finish above .500 in ACC play and increases their resume as the post-season looms ever closer.
While on the field things went about as well as the Diamond Heels could have asked for, Forbes and the team received disciplinary action from the NCAA on Thursday, just hours before the series opener.
UNC athletics announced in a press release that “multiple student-athletes” must serve a one-game suspension over the course of the next five games due to an “incident that occurred at the end of the seventh inning” of the game against Gardner-Webb on Tuesday.
The incident in question occurred when Gardner-Webb pitcher Grant Vera yelled at UNC hitter Jackson Van De Brake, resulting in a collective clearing of bullpens and dugouts. The suspensions were handed down by the NCAA and the University has remained tight-lipped regarding the identities of the players involved and the timeline for serving their suspensions.
Forbes said, after the conclusion of the N.C. State series, “over half” of the players have already served their suspension.
“We're gonna face adversity at some point in the season — we don't really know what that is,” Grintz said. “But, we keep to our strong standards. We can continue to work hard and try to get better every day.”
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