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'I know our guys will be ready': Knapp, Pence lead Diamond Heels to ACC semifinals

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The Diamond Heels celebrate a 10-2 win against the Virginia Cavaliers on Thursday, May 25, 2023 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Coming into the ACC tournament, the Diamond Heels pitching staff issued 19 walks over their four games in South Carolina against Coastal Carolina and Clemson. However, in their 10-2 win over Virginia on Thursday to finish off ACC tournament pool play and advance to the semifinals, they issued two — a stark contrast from the pitching seen just a week prior.

Junior Jake Knapp and sophomore Dalton Pence were at the helm of the Tar Heel team and set a commanding tone for the game, shutting down a normally potent Virginia offense. The rest of the Diamond Heels rallied around the show of sharp pitching and posted 10 runs while limiting UVA to two in a display of timely hitting and sound defense. 

In a sentiment echoed by both UVA head coach Brian O’Connor and UNC head coach Scott Forbes, it all starts with pitching. 

The momentum and energy of the whole team are reliant on the pitching and, recently, the starting rotation for the Diamond Heels has fluctuated.

The one constant on the mound for the Tar Heels was the appearance of Knapp. The Walters State Community College transfer has 60 strikeouts in his 15 appearances and has seen the mound in every ACC series this year. 

The Tar Heels were counting on Knapp, who had shut out Virginia in March, to put the kibosh on UVA’s big bats and All-ACC first-teamers Jake Gelof, Ethan O’Donnell, Griff O’Ferrall and 2023 ACC Player of the Year Kyle Teel. 

He did just that. 

Knapp allowed only one hit from UVA’s powerful top four in the lineup and struck out Gelof, O’Ferrall and Teel. 

Forbes described Knapp’s 5.2 innings of work as “outstanding” and credited the pitcher as getting better and better every game.

Knapp relied on his fastball and slider but threw in a couple of changeups — a pitch seldom used by the righty — in order to induce swinging strikes and contribute to the five strikeouts he dealt. 

“Just to get them thinking more and being able to land my slider and getting that first strike,” Knapp said. “When I do that with my off-speed, my fastball can play up a bit. That’s my best pitch."

In terms of control, which has been one of his biggest struggles as a pitcher — handing out 33 walks on the season — Knapp was able to pound the strike zone and avoid walking batters against the Cavaliers.

“So just sticking with what Coach Gaines has been preaching to me all year has helped me down the stretch,” Knapp said. “Fill (the strike zone) up more, and more confidence has come with that.”

In what would be a poetic bookend, Knapp’s first and tentatively last ACC start this season were against Virginia, both wins. For Knapp, it’s not about redemption but consistency and hard work, from struggling with control and walking the leadoff batter in March, to walking only two and leading the Tar Heels to victory in a do-or-die game. 

Knapp’s stellar work was followed by reliever Pence, who logged his first save of the season after his time on the mound. Pence closed out the game for the Diamond Heels, pitching the final 3.1 innings, walking zero and dealing out three strikeouts. 

“Pence — like I was saying — I saw it as soon as he came up to the mound,” junior catcher Tomas Frick said. “I saw his eyes. I knew he was attacking guys."

Like his predecessor, Pence also peppered the strike zone, averaging around three pitches per bat and retiring all but two batters he faced. 

Forbes’ story of the game was not the 10 runs his offense put up, or the success of the bottom of the lineup and hitting with runners in scoring position — all he might have touched on earlier in the season — but Knapp’s stability on the mound and reliever Pence’s ability to find the strike zone. 

"When you pitch and you defend, you have a chance to beat anybody,” Forbes said. “That's just the bottom line and that's something that we work hard at, and I'm proud of these guys."

With the win, the Diamond Heels will play the Clemson Tigers, who swept the Tar Heels just last weekend, in the semifinals of the ACC tournament on Saturday at 5 p.m. Pitcher Caden Grice will start on the mound for the Tigers, the two-way player struck out nine and allowed only four hits the last time he faced the Tar Heels. 

"These guys know. When you’re competitors you aren’t necessarily looking for revenge, but you don’t forget when you get swept and you want to play them again,” Forbes said. “I know our guys will be ready."

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@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com