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'We've got to get that addressed:' UNC baseball bullpen struggles in 2-1 series loss to ECU

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Freshman right-handed pitcher Olin Johnson (31) throws the ball in the game against East Carolina University at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Sunday, February 25, 2024.

When senior pitcher Jake Knapp, UNC’s ace, went down with a season-ending injury to his throwing arm, pitching coach Bryant Gaines sat down with the bullpen and told them they would have to step up.

“Our starters aren't going to go out there and go seven scoreless every day," senior pitcher Connor Bovair said. "It's our job to keep us in the fight.”

In No. 17 UNC baseball’s series against No. 11 ECU, though, the bullpen was unable to do that. Behind three starts of fewer than five innings, UNC dropped two out of three games to drop its first series of the year. Head coach Scott Forbes had to use ten different arms out of the bullpen throughout the series with four different pitchers working multiple days. The Tar Heels have not had a starter go at least five innings in six consecutive outings. 

While Forbes said it's still early in the year, he plans to tweak the starting rotation as the season progresses.

“Things are going to change, roles are going to change, and that's up for us as coaches to figure out,” Forbes said.

The struggles from UNC’s rotation have not only been a byproduct of Knapp’s injury a few weeks before the season began, but also the result of its inexperience. All three starters in the series against ECU had never started a game for UNC before this season.

First-year pitcher Folger Boaz, who has been UNC’s most consistent starter so far in the season, began the series with a solid outing on Friday, pitching 4.2 innings and allowing just one run. Behind that performance, the Tar Heels were able to ride their top bullpen pieces to a 2-1 victory.

Sophomore pitcher Matthew Matthijs, who pitched in relief on Friday and Sunday, had high praise for Boaz through his first two collegiate starts.

“He already is really good," Matthijs said, "so he's going to continue to get better.”

On Saturday, senior pitcher Ben Peterson did not have similar success, and was pulled in the fourth inning after giving up two earned runs. UNC found itself down 7-0 in that game, and a late push that saw the tying-run come to the plate in the ninth fell short.

In the rubber match on Sunday, it all came crashing down. First-year Olin Johnson managed to pitch just one inning and UNC’s bullpen allowed seven runs in a back-and-forth 10-9 loss.

Forbes said he noticed that redshirt sophomore pitcher Dalton Pence, who pitched in relief on Friday and Sunday, was burnt out. Pence ranks second on the team in innings pitched. On Sunday, he was forced into action in just the second inning to relieve Johnson.

“He looked great," Forbes said, "But it's too early in the season to just crush a kid."

While Forbes said he doesn’t believe that the bullpen’s overuse caught up to the team on Sunday, he admitted it did force him to make decisions that he otherwise would not have made.

Forbes said, had Johnson gone deeper in the final game of the series, Pence, a lefty, could have pitched in the eighth inning rather than senior pitcher Matt Poston, a righty. In an inning in which ECU plated two, Pence would have been a better matchup against the ECU lefty hitters in that spot.

Consistent short starts have put the UNC bullpen behind. Bovair is correct that UNC cannot expect its starters to go seven scoreless every game, but unless the starting rotation begins to eat up more innings soon, the Tar Heel relievers will feel the effects.

“Our bullpen is deep enough where it won't tax it, but we've got to get that addressed,” Forbes said. “And we will.”

@brendan_lunga18

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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