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'They battled the entire season': Diamond Heels fall in extras to Iowa in elimination game

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Several UNC baseball players talk with a coach during their game against Virginia on Thursday, May 25, 2023. The Diamond Heels won, 10-2.

In a 13-inning heartbreaker, the Diamond Heels' season came to a close at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Terre Haute Regional on Sunday afternoon.

The rematch with the Hawkeyes was a microcosm — and ending — to the season for UNC, displaying characteristics and storylines that permeated throughout the Tar Heels' entire 2023 season.

In the regional elimination game, the Diamond Heels were burdened by a continued difficulty of hitting with runners in scoring position — a common theme seen throughout the year.

But, on the flip side, arms like Kevin Eaise and Dalton Pence stepped up and showed out, with the “next man up” philosophy ringing true, and big bats like Mac Horvath and Tomas Frick making a huge impact on the season.

On Sunday, all of these characteristics came to a head in the 6-5 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

The game started off with fireworks from Casey Cook — one of the most consistent bats in the lineup — on a two-run homer to give the Tar Heels the lead. 

But, the Tar Heels wrestled with hitting when runners were in scoring position, leaving 10 men stranded, including leaving the bases loaded in the bottom of the first.

It wasn’t until redshirt first-year and backup catcher Dylan King — in only his 12th at-bat of the season — hit a crucial RBI double to make it a one-run game. King’s performance was indicative of a pattern of players that have either unexpectedly come out of the woodwork or young guys that are showing their mettle in critical situations.

“Every single person is ready at any given moment,” Horvath said. “No surprise that King was ready for his opportunity there and he got the job done.” 

And it was Horvath, the junior from Minnesota, that rounded the bases with a fired-up expression as he extended the game for the Tar Heels with a solo shot, game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth.

Horvath has been a pillar of the team all year, not only on the field — he became the first ACC player this century to have 20 homers, 20 doubles and 20 stolen bases — but off as well, serving as an unofficial team captain. With the junior being draft eligible, he has most likely played his last game in a Tar Heel uniform, and his last hit was a homer, encapsulating his “leave it all on the field” mentality.

Iowa scored in the top of the 13th, something UNC couldn't match, but head coach Scott Forbes knew his players were going to battle until the last out.

Part of what kept UNC in the fight against Iowa was the stellar mound performances from Pence and Eaise, two arms that have shown up for the Tar Heels all year. The two pitchers combined for 6.2 innings allowing only one run on three hits and striking out five, holding the Hawkeyes in check and giving the UNC bats a chance to take the lead.

"Just let our lineup do its thing because they've done it for us all year," Eaise said.

Though the game did not go in the Tar Heels' favor in Terre Haute, there is nothing short of pride from Forbes in his players and the year the Diamond Heels had.

“I felt like they battled the entire season,” Forbes said. “We overcame some pretty significant injuries to get where we were. It’s just a mark of our team to go down, then all of a sudden it’s tied and I really felt like we were going to win that game. It just didn’t happen for us. But it sure wasn’t because of a lack of effort or togetherness.”

@gracegnugent

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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