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The Daily Tar Heel

N.C. State baseball clinches series over No. 11 UNC

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First-year catcher Luke Stevenson (44) hits the ball during the baseball game against Coastal Carolina at Boshamer Stadium on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. UNC fell to Coastal Carolina 5-4.

RALEIGH - After allowing nine runs the previous night, No. 11 UNC’s bullpen collapsed once again on Friday en route to a 5-4 series-clinching loss to N.C. State in Raleigh. 

The Tar Heel bats, which hit five home runs on Thursday, picked up right where they left off in the first inning. Junior center fielder Vance Honeycutt, the second hitter of the game, hit a long fly ball to left field. The Wolfpack left fielder sized up the wall but could only watch as Honeycutt’s team-leading 16th home run of the season flew over his head to give UNC a 1-0 lead.

N.C. State capitalized on a leadoff hit by pitch to tie the game in the third. With runners on the corners and no outs, Wolfpack first baseman Garrett Pennington ripped a double down the left field line to bring in a run. Junior pitcher Shea Sprague prevented any further damage, though, striking out two and inducing a hard groundout to senior first baseman Parks Harber.

Harber traded the bat for the glove in the next half inning. Entering the box with two outs and nobody on, Harber did it himself, nuking an 0-1 pitch over the right field fence to regain the lead for UNC. 

In the fifth, first-year third baseman Gavin Gallaher joined in on the solo train, hitting a solo home run of his own to double UNC’s lead. Senior shortstop Colby Wilkerson doubled inside the left field line later in the inning to bring yet another UNC run across. 

“I thought we were going to need a big inning here,” head coach Scott Forbes said. “Because it's a tough place to hold the other team down.”

UNC’s defense shined in the bottom of the inning. The Wolfpack led off the frame with a single into the right field corner, but graduate right fielder Anthony Donofrio came up firing and threw the runner out at second. Four batters later, graduate second baseman Alex Madera corralled a throw from Honeycutt and relayed the ball home, giving first-year catcher Luke Stevenson plenty of time to tag out a runner attempting to score.

Redshirt sophomore pitcher Dalton Pence entered in relief of Sprague in the seventh. Sprague pitched a much-needed quality outing for UNC, going six innings and striking out seven. Pence could not continue the dominance, allowing N.C. State to cut the deficit in half with a two-out RBI single up the middle.

“[Sprague] has been outstanding,” Forbes said. “And he's done that a lot for us all season, so that's really good to see.”

In the eighth, sophomore pitcher Matthew Matthijs also struggled in relief. He quickly found himself with runners on first and second and no outs, and the Wolfpack took advantage. Thursday’s walk-off hero Brandon Butterworth came up clutch once again with an RBI liner to pull NC State within one, and an ensuing wild pitch allowed the runner on third to scamper home and tie the game. Two batters later, it was deja vu, as another pitch got behind Stevenson and Butterworth reached home safely for the Wolfpack lead.

“At the end of the day,” Forbes said. “I mean, we're up four to one in the 7th inning, and our bullpen has won those games, and they just didn't get it done today.”

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The Tar Heels did not put up a fight in the top of the ninth. Despite Honeycutt coming to the plate with a chance to tie the game, UNC went down 1-2-3 to lose the series.

The Tar Heels will look to salvage a game on Saturday with first pitch set for 3 p.m.

@brendan_lunga18

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com