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Diamond Heels' starting pitchers step up in series win over Virginia Tech

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UNC first-year right-handed pitcher Jason DeCaro (29) pitches the ball during the baseball game against VCU at Boshamer Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

Standing in the lobby of Boshamer Stadium after Friday’s game, head coach Scott Forbes delivered a major blow: first-year pitcher Folger Boaz was probably going to be out for the year.

The Friday starter was UNC’s most consistent pitcher all year before spraining the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow against South Carolina on April 9. He is the second Tar Heel starting pitcher to go down with a season-ending injury this year, alongside senior Jake Knapp.

In UNC’s 2-1 series victory over Virginia Tech this weekend, the starting rotation stepped up in his absence. Combining for 17.2 innings, the starters allowed just four runs and struck out 17. They shut down the fourth-best batting team in the ACC, providing much needed rest for an overtaxed bullpen.

The rotation has faced adversity all season. But with the presence of starting-quality pitchers in the bullpen and veteran position players behind them, an assortment of players have been able to step up. 

“We love our depth,” Forbes said. “We feel like it's a big strength of our team.”

On Friday, first-year Jason DeCaro pitched his best start of the year, going seven scoreless innings and striking out a career-high eight batters. He said his teammates had been teasing him because he had failed to get through the seventh inning in two previous starts. On Friday, he walked off the mound in the eighth to a standing ovation from the Boshamer faithful, which brought a smile to the face of the otherwise steady DeCaro. 

DeCaro graduated high school early and came to UNC at age 17. He began the year as the midweek starter but was elevated to a weekend role after a scintillating start against VCU. With the injury to Boaz, DeCaro, who just turned 18 on April 17, was thrust into the top spot in the rotation.

“I think [I’m] just getting [poise] from the other guys that are around me,” Boaz said after UNC's 13-0 win over Notre Dame on April 12. “[I] watched them a lot in the fall, in the preseason, and seeing how they act, that's been really big for me — just watch and observe and try to take it all in as I go.”

Junior Shea Sprague came close to matching DeCaro on Saturday, pitching 6.2 innings and striking out six.

His lone earned run came in the first inning. Then, Sprague quickly found himself in a bases-loaded, no-out jam after the first three batters reached base safely. He said he always trusts his stuff and doesn’t allow his confidence to waver on the mound. He was able to induce a 4-6-3 double play to prevent any further damage.

He said his confidence on the mound is growing with each start.

“We have a really good process throughout the week,” Sprague said. “We always flush the outing before, but good, bad or indifferent, you just consistently do the same things.”

While junior Aidan Haugh did not find similar success in UNC’s lone loss of the series on Sunday, giving up three earned runs in just four innings of work, the Fayetteville Tech transfer has previously thrived at the end of the rotation. He took over the role on April 14 following the injury to Boaz and allowed just two runs total in his first two starts.

None of the three starters who took the mound against Virginia Tech were starters during the team’s opening series back in February — indicative of the turnover that the rotation has experienced all year. Boaz went down with the injury, and senior Ben Peterson and first-year Olin Johnson have been relegated to midweek and bullpen duties. 

Nine different UNC pitchers have started a game this year — six in a weekend role. 

“We knew we had a handful of guys that could do it,” junior center fielder Vance Honeycutt said

With the power of UNC’s lineup on display again this weekend, scoring a total of 17 runs, the rotation needs to remain steady for the Tar Heels to make a deep run in the postseason. How the starters continue to respond to adversity will largely determine the ceiling of this year’s team.

“Obviously Knapp and Folger [are] both incredible players and it's awful that they went down with injuries, but it's just been next man up for the entirety of the season,” Sprague said. “So we have plenty of studs that will step up and just continue to eat innings and continue to shove.”

@brendan_lunga18

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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