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UNC baseball bullpen struggles in 2-1 series loss to N.C. State

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Junior pitcher Shea Sprague (28) pitches during the UNC baseball game against UVA on April 6, 2024. UNC won 12-7.

RALEIGH — After falling 9-8 to N.C. State in the series-opening game on Thursday, the typically imperturbable Scott Forbes was visibly frustrated. 

The head coach's message was simple.

“You get eight [runs] in this league,” Forbes said. “You gotta find a way to win."

In No. 11 UNC baseball's 2-1 series loss to the Wolfpack this weekend, the Tar Heel bullpen struggled to close out games. The typically staunch group of pitchers collapsed down the stretch on Thursday and Friday, resulting in UNC’s first series loss to N.C. State in three years.

UNC’s bullpen has been relied on all season to put up substantial innings for the Tar Heels, especially after injuries to the team's top two starters: senior Jake Knapp and first-year Folger Boaz. Last week, four Tar Heel relievers combined for 7.1 innings in a midweek game against No. 19 Coastal Carolina after first-year starter Olin Johnson could not work through the second frame.

Senior pitcher Connor Bovair credited the training staff for keeping the bullpen in shape all season.

“For them to be able to go out there two, three days a week and show that good stuff and have that success, it's a testament to each guy that they're working hard off the field,” Bovair said.

While Forbes said he doesn’t see fatigue as an issue, the bullpen struggled in key moments in the first two games of the N.C. State series. 

On Friday, sophomore pitcher Kyle Percival entered the game in a tight spot. With two runners in scoring position and two outs, he hoped to keep the game tied at five. Forbes said he decided not to walk Wolfpack catcher Jacob Cozart because he liked the lefty-on-lefty matchup and was also concerned about the power threat on deck. 

Percival, though, could not come through. Cozart smashed a three-run homer, which played a critical role in N.C. State’s victory.

“Percival just made a bad pitch,” Forbes said. “He's been really good for us and he threw him a fastball up at his eyeballs."

Friday was a similar story. After junior pitcher Shea Sprague had one of his best starts of the season — going six innings and allowing just one run — UNC’s bullpen could not back him up. Redshirt sophomore pitcher Dalton Pence allowed a run in the seventh. Then sophomore Matthew Matthijs, who leads the country in wins, unraveled in the eighth to the tune of three runs. 

Forbes addressed the team Friday night, telling the Tar Heels adversity is what's going to make or break the team.

“It's either going to make us a lot better or it's going to be the downfall of us," Bovair said. 

The Tar Heels heeded his message and responded on Saturday. UNC’s bullpen allowed just one run, including three scoreless innings from Bovair.

Senior shortstop Colby Wilkerson, who recorded  four hits, said the offensive approach doesn’t change even when the pitching staff is struggling.

“Baseball's a hard sport,” Wilkerson said. “Sometimes it doesn't work out. Some days they're shutting people down and we're not getting runs, [and] some days we're getting runs and they’re not shutting people down.”

For a team that ranks 16th in the country in runs scored but 55th in team walks and hits per inning pitched, UNC’s pitching staff will be the key in a potential run to Omaha.

With the starting rotation constantly fluctuating, the bullpen will need to step up. Forbes is confident that it will.

“The bullpen's good,” Forbes said. “I mean, if you look at our season, our bullpen has been really good. They just weren't real good Thursday and Friday.”

@brendan_lunga18

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@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com