We’re only a couple of weeks into the spring sports season, but a few things have already become very clear about this year’s edition of the Diamond Heels. The biggest of them is that, after an 8-1 start to the season in which they’ve outscored opponents 77-20, these Heels mean business.
After opening the season by dispatching Seton Hall in a 3-game series, the Heels took care of Elon last week in preparation for a weekend series against East Carolina, who were ranked to start the season but had been on the wrong side of their first few games. The Heels were, of course, undefeated, but hadn’t quite gotten the respect of voters yet after last year’s uninspiring performance. That quickly changed on Friday night, as UNC jumped out to a 5-0 lead and survived a late scare to pull out a 7-4 win against the Pirates. Brandon Schaeffer has entrenched himself as the Friday starter and pitched 5 solid innings against the Pirates, allowing 4 hits, 1 BB, 1 earned run, notching 5 strikeouts, and taking home the win. The Heels’ bullpen struggled to close things out, though — after doing good work to get to the top of the ninth up 7-2, they allowed a leadoff homer, then with two outs, allowed a runner to reach on a bunt due to a throwing error. That runner scored thanks to more poor defense, and suddenly two runners were on base and the tying run was at the plate. Caden O’Brien finally came in to calm things out and struck out the Pirates’ final batter, earning the save. On the batting side, Vance Honeycutt, now batting at #1 for the Heels, homered on the second pitch he saw, and Alberto Osuna led off the bottom of the second by matching him, which helped set the tone early for UNC. The Heels played good small-ball in the third to push the lead to 5-0, and then Mac Horvath, who went 2-4 on the day, hit a 2-run shot in the 7th to push UNC’s lead to 7-2.
The Heels shut the Pirates out entirely on Saturday, but their bats were a little quieter in a 2-0 victory. Max Carlson threw 5.2 innings, allowing 4 hits and a walk and striking out 5, getting the win after Angel Zarate’s 2-run double in the 5th. O’Brien came in again to start out the ninth and struck out all three batters he saw for the save.
On Sunday, as the series moved from Chapel Hill to Greenville for the Heels’ first road game of the season, things went a little sideways. Shaddon Peavyhouse was fine in 3 innings of work, allowing 2 runs (1 earned) before turning things over to the bullpen, but the Tar Heel bats couldn’t get anything going until the ninth inning, where they loaded the bases with one out. Unfortunately, two strikeouts ended things there and the Heels were handed their first loss, 5-0.
This week, the Heels had a bit of a strange situation with two consecutive midweek games, against Longwood on Tuesday and then Winthrop on Wednesday. The game against Longwood broke open with an 8-run 6th inning highlighted by a grand slam from Tomas Frick, who was the only UNC starter to not yet have homered to that point. The Heels were just too much for Longwood and won 16-1.
On Wednesday, the Heels got out in front of Winthrop quickly, scoring 7 runs in the first four innings while a pitching staff of Will Sandy and Nik Pry limited the Eagles to 5 hits and 2 runs in their 5 innings. Coach Scott Forbes went deep into his bullpen to finish the game out, with 6 pitchers pitching the final 4 innings and O’Brien once again coming in for the game’s final out.
So far, a lot of the usual suspects on the batting side of things for the Heels have been performing as expected or better. Angel Zarate’s still got an on-base streak of 32 games running dating to last year, and he’s slashing .394/.487/.606 with a team-leading 10 RBI. Johnny Castagnozzi, who became a power-hitting revelation last year, has maintained and improved on that form and is also hitting really well for contact, with a line of .452/.528/.742; that batting average leads the team. Frick’s also got 10 RBI as he’s making good contact, with a .355 average. But the unquestionable story of this year’s Heels so far is Vance Honeycutt, the freshman center fielder who’s already moved up to #1 in the batting order and has just had a monstrous start to the season. He leads the team with 15 runs scored, 7 extra-base hits, 5 home runs, and 10 stolen bases on 10 attempts (!!). He’s slashing .414/.553/1.034, with the latter two numbers leading all starters. Yes, I’m sure that last number is his slugging percentage, not his OPS. It’s early yet and the Heels have primarily played weaker competition, so all those rate stats will go down, but even still, Honeycutt has to be having one of the best UNC freshman seasons in a while — even Aaron Sabato didn’t start this hot. Scott Forbes has already been throwing around comparisons to MLB all-star and former World Series MVP George Springer.
On the pitching side, it’s definitely clear that this year’s bullpen is a lot deeper than last year’s, which was more or less Austin Love and a prayer. Several of last year’s relief pitchers have stronger stuff after a year of experience, including Gage Gillian and Nik Pry, and Forbes has also bolstered the staff with transfers like Schaeffer and Peavyhouse. Carlson’s return from an elbow injury has also helped, as he looked really good last year before it happened and now looks secure as a Saturday starter.
This weekend, the 24th-ranked Heels will prepare for a series against 7-2 Coastal Carolina in Chapel Hill. The Chanticleers and Tar Heels have met many times before, but never in a series, so this is good to see in the spirit of forging stronger bonds among public universities in the Carolinas. Coastal is a perennial baseball powerhouse, so UNC will be tested again and given a chance to prove, after ECU’s turned out to be a bit of a paper tiger to start the season, that they are back among the heights of college baseball. I don’t expect that the starters will change from the last two weekend series. Check back with Tar Heel Blog for more updates as this season continues!