Carolina baseball has been maddeningly inconsistent this season, as they have piled up head-scratching losses and found ways to win weird games. Lose 2 of 3 to ECU, sweep Liberty. Lose midweek games to UNC-W, St. Johns, and Gardner-Webb, take Louisville to the wire in two games before breaking through with a 10-3 blowout to hand the Cardinals their first loss.
The Heels entered their first ACC series at the Bosh at a paltry 9-8 (1-2), but had everything click against the Pitt Panthers.
Game 1: Carolina 15, Pitt 3
This game rode a few prevalent themes from the early season: strong start by Tyler Baum, explode for a crooked number in the middle innings to put it away. This time, it was 7 innings of 6-hit ball from Baum, and a 9-run third to decide the opener.
Leading 2-1 going into the bottom of the 3rd, the Heels flexed their muscle with homers from Kyle Datres and Zach Gahagan— and then piled on seven more runs. DH Ben Casparius drew a bases-loaded walk (a major theme of Carolina’s run production in the early season), Cody Roberts got a sac fly, then Michael Busch doubled home the remaining two runners. After a few more walks, Gahagan stepped up again and delivered a 3-run double. Ashton McGee closed the frame with an RBI double of his own, and the Heels were off to an 11-1 lead.
That was more than enough for Baum, as he gave up a 5th inning home run to Ron Washington Jr. (yes, THAT Ron Washington’s son), but otherwise cruised.
The Heels tacked on four more small ball runs in the 6th, with a Roberts single, a Busch two-run single, and—again— a bases-loaded walk from Gahagan.
Casparius moved from DH to pitcher and threw a clean 8th, and Hansen Butler matched Casparius’ inning in the 9th— both had 2 K’s and 1 BB.
Game 2: Carolina 4, Pitt 0
Coming into this game, the Heels were averaging 9.8 runs in wins...and 2.2 in losses. This game followed the template of the losses, but the Heels were treated to the best start of the season from a pitcher: Austin Bergner spun 8 innings of 12 K, 3 hit shutout baseball.
Gahagan continued his strong weekend in the 1st with an RBI single, and the 1-0 lead held until the 5th. RF Kip Brandenburg got his first weekend start of the season, and delivered an RBI double in that inning, followed by an RBI single in the 6th. Good day for the 6’5 sophomore out of the 9-hole.
After 117 pitches from Bergner, closer Josh Hiatt shut the door on the Panthers, allowing a hit and (surprisingly) no strikeouts in the top of the 9th to secure the series win.
Game 3: Carolina 13, Pitt 2
The Heels’ bats came to play and secure the sweep early in this one, as they pushed runs across in each of the first 5 innings. Ike Freeman got it going in the first with a 2-run double, Michael Busch followed a Brandenburg RBI single with a 3-run homer in the 2nd, Cody Roberts had an RBI double in the 3rd, Brandon Riley sent a 2-run blast into the seats in the 4th, and Ben Casparius doubled home a run in the 5th.
The 12-run outburst was more than sufficient for starter Taylor Sugg, who gave up 4 hits and 2 runs in 5 1⁄3 innings. Brett Daniels relieved him and pitched a perfect remainder of the 6th and 7th, and Joey Lancelotti and Cooper Criswell put up zeros in the 8th and 9th. Given UNC’s bullpen struggles early this season, they needed 5 2⁄3 innings of shutout ball to gain confidence and experience.
Joey Ladowski, the third left fielder to play for the Heels in this triumph, drove in his first run of the season on an RBI groundout in the 7th to create the final margin.
You’d have to start with Bergner for this one. 8 shutout innings keyed the win in the one game where the bats weren’t as active. This was the first time he made it out of the 5th inning in a start this season, and it would be huge for the Heels to establish a good Saturday starter behind Baum. Speaking of Baum, he was no slouch in his Friday effort.
With the bats, Gahagan was 6/11 on the series with a homer and 6 RBI’s. After a slow start, he’s got his batting average back up to .333 and his OPS up to .847— a key for one of the holdovers from last year’s lineup.
Busch also drove in 6 over the weekend, pushing his team-leading RBI total to a ridiculous 27 on the young season. One of five players to start every game, he also leads the club with 4 home runs.
ACC in the top 25
The Heels fell out of this week’s Baseball America poll (on the strength of the 1-0 loss to Gardner-Webb on Wednesday). The Heels’ North Carolina neighbors, though? They’re making some noise.
N.C. State got a three-game sweep on the road against then-#5 Clemson, jumping from unranked to 10th this week. Duke got a home sweep against Miami and jumped from 20 to 14. Even Wake Forest took two of three from Louisville.
Florida State held steady, jumping from #6 to #5, Clemson dropped to #12, and Louisville dropped to #17.
Local rival ECU also appeared in the polls for the first time this season, debuting at #21.
Despite their fall from the rankings, the Heels are tied with Duke atop the Coastal Division at 4-2 in conference play. State leads the Atlantic at 5-1. National powers Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, Miami, and Virginia are all lurking at 3-3.
As our focus shifts from basketball to baseball, the challenging schedule continues. The Heels host former ACC foe Maryland for a Tuesday afternoon tilt at the Bosh, then welcome the 5th-ranked Noles for a weekend series. This writer hopes to get to the game on Sunday and get eyes on the team for the first time this season.