What To Expect: North Carolina (3/26-3/28)
Just in case Thursday's Men's Basketball debacle against Colorado State doesn't have you frustrated enough about NC State Athletics, it's now time for the 2021 Wolfpack Baseball team to head to Chapel Hill and take on the North Carolina Tar Heels.
State currently sits at 5-9 on the season after picking up a 5-3 win at UNC-Wilmington on Tuesday, but has yet to earn a series win over the course of ACC play as the Pack are 1-8 in the conference heading into this weekend.
Carolina has exceeded expectations so far, as the Heels currently sit tied for first in the ACC Coastal Division with Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech after initially being tabbed to finish fifth on their side of the conference in the ACC Preseason Coaches Poll.
Without further ado, let's meet the team from that blue school, who's led by first-year Head Coach Scott Forbes.
Carolina is currently ranked twenty-fourth in D1Baseball.com's latest Top 25 poll and is riding high after winning two-of-three against previously-ranked Boston College this past weekend, as well as gaining a dominant 8-1 midweek win over #8 East Carolina. Additionally, the Tar Heels have three-game sweeps over James Madison and Clemson, and a two-of-three series win over Virginia. Carolina's lone series loss came in Blacksburg by losing two-of-three at Virginia Tech, and have two midweek losses against Liberty combined with a win over Elon. Taking all of that into account, the Heels are currently 13-6 overall and 8-4 in ACC play.
Carolina has a balanced attack, with both their pitching and offensive numbers somewhere near the middle of the pack in the ACC.
On the mound this weekend, Forbes has announced that right-handers Austin Love and Max Alba will start on Friday and Saturday, with the Sunday spot still to be determined. Love and Alba have started every weekend series so far for the Heels, so it's no surprise that they're both set to pitch this weekend.
Love leads the conference in innings pitched with 32.0, and ranks fourth in the league in strikeouts with thirty-seven. Love is 4-0 through five starts, posting a 2.25 ERA and holding opponents to a .182 batting average. Love is one of the best pitchers in the ACC, and will pose a tough threat for State's lineup on Friday.
Alba has a 2-1 record over the course of five starts, currently sitting at an ERA of 5.09 through 23.0 innings pitched. The second-year freshman from Franklin, Wisconsin locates his fastball well and tries to make batters miss with some nasty sinking action.
Max Carlson is a true freshman who came to Carolina ranked as the top player in the state of Minnesota by Perfect Game. Like Alba, Carlson has a 2-1 record through five starts on the mound, striking out twenty over 25.2 innings pitched. Carlson has held opposing batters to a .209 batting average, but has shown a bit of a wild side, walking fourteen batters, hitting two, and totaling four wild pitches through five appearances. Carlson hasn't been officially announced as the starter on Sunday, but it's hard to imagine a world that he doesn't get the ball in this weekend's final game, or at least make an appearance or two out of the bullpen.
Nick Pry made an appearance in the Heels' win over ECU on Tuesday, making him the team's leader with nine bullpen appearances in 2021. Pry currently posts a 5.84 ERA and has done so over 12.1. innings pitched, leading all Carolina relievers with nineteen strikeouts. Pry will more than likely get some action this weekend, as he's appeared in nearly half of Carolina's games this season.
Keep in mind, all of the given stats are from before the Tar Heels' game against ECU on Tuesday, as they haven't updated any stats on their website since then. Screw them.
Caden O'Brien has been a star for Carolina in 2021, as he's the leading left-hander on the Heels' pitching staff. Through six appearances, O'Brien has a 1-0 record and a 1.42 ERA over 12.2 innings pitched. O'Brien has two saves on the season, and has outstanding command within the strike-zone, walking just three batters in his time on the mound this season. O'Brien is Carolina's go-to guy out of the bullpen, and will definitely see time on the mound this weekend.
After experimenting both as a starting pitcher and in the batter's box during the shortened 2020 season, Joey Lancellotti has moved backed to his traditional bullpen role in 2021, making four appearances and acquiring a 1-1 record over 11.o innings pitched. Lancellotti sits on an ERA of 2.45 thus far, holding opponents to a .268 batting average. The fourth-year junior from Bensalem, Pennsylvania is a hard-throwing righty who works mostly as a ground ball pitcher, but has totaled twelve strikeouts in 2021.
Despite coming into Carolina listed as a shortstop, Connor Ollio has acted as the closer for UNC in 2021. Ollio has tallied two saves this season, striking out eight batters over 6.0 innings pitched. Ollio has a 4.50 ERA, and has made numerous short-relief appearances thus far.
Will Sandy has started the majority of the Heels' midweek games in 2021, but has seen limited bullpen action as well. The 6'4-lefty earned the win on Tuesday against ECU, his third start of the 2021 season. Sandy does most of his work during the weekday slate, but may appear in some situational settings against State.
Speaking of situational pitchers, Carolina's Nick James will be a guy to keep an eye on over the course of this weekend. The 1-0 second-year freshman has yet to surrender a run through five appearances, but has only thrown 3.2 innings over these outings. James is holding opponents to a .083 batting average, and has struck out six hitters in his five appearances.
Offensively, Carolina is headlined by one thing in particular, power. After this past weekend's series win over Boston College, the Heels grabbed the ACC's home run lead with twenty-three. Caleb Roberts, who spends the majority of his time in right field, comes into the weekend leading the team with five homers this season. Roberts also leads the Heels with fifteen RBI, totaling a .219 batting average through nineteen games, all of which he has started.
The biggest storyline for Carolina's offense in 2021 has been the emergence of Justice Thompson, a transfer from Northwest Florida State College. Thompson leads Carolina's offense in a slew of different categories including batting average, at bats, runs scored, hits, total bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and stolen bases. Hitting .343 in 2021, Thompson is a solid defensive player as well, having yet to make an error while patrolling center field.
Carolina's outfield is finished off with leadoff batter Angel Zarate. Zarate is hitting .333 this year, totaling twenty-three hits and is probably the Heels' best pure contact-hitter. Zarate has ten RBI as well, not bad for a player who usually comes up after the back half of the lineup, or with the bases clear.
Cleanup hitter Danny Serretti plays shortstop for UNC, and is one of the more powerful members of the Heels' lineup. Over half of Serretti's hits have been extra-base hits, leading to an impressive .493 slugging percentage. Serretti hits .217, and has driven in fourteen runs so far this season.
True freshman Tomas Frick has handled duties behind the plate for Carolina in 2021, doing so while hitting .281 in the batter's box. Frick is a solid defensive catcher, having Carolina ranked near the bottom of the ACC in stolen bases against this season.
Brett Centracchio and Johnny Castagnozzi hold down the left side of the infield for the Tar Heels, with Centracchio playing first base and Castagnozzi spending most of his time at second base. What's most impressive is despite nearly two-hundred defensive chances, neither player has yet to commit an error this season. Centracchio is a graduate transfer from Davidson who's hitting .234 on fifteen hits, while Castagnozzi is a true freshman that is currently sitting at a .227 average in the batter's box.
Forbes and the rest of his coaching staff have been making changes throughout the season to Carolina's lineup, as aside from the seven players already discussed, eleven different Tar Heels have started at least one game in 2021.
Tyler Causey can play both corners of the infield, and has been a solid contributor for Carolina this year, posting a .297 batting average over twenty-seven at bats. Causey has spent time at third base with Clemente Inclan, who has played in fourteen while hitting .200. Last weekend against Boston College, Mac Horvath got a start at the hot corner, but with a .043 batting average through twenty-three at bats, has yet to earn a full-time spot in the lineup.
All-in-all, Carolina is a well-coached group with numerous talented players, as they always are. This weekend's rivalry series should be a fun one (and by fun, I mean ridiculously stressful).
In a rivalry that dates back to 1895, State and Carolina have met a whopping 304 times on the baseball diamond, with UNC leading the all-time series 168-135-1.
Most recently, these two teams met in a three-game series in May of 2019, where the Wolfpack won two-of-three against the Tar Heels, losing the series opener 5-3, and coming back to win in the final two games of the regular season by scores of 11-2 and 11-0.
The State/Carolina rivalry has provided one of the most heartbreaking yet iconic games in ACC history, which came during the 2013 ACC Baseball Tournament. The 'Pack and Heels dueled it out in a game that went on for eighteen innings, with Carolina eventually holding to win 2-1. The game was the highest-attended college baseball game in the history of the state of North Carolina, and took over six hours to complete. Despite State losing, the game was highlighted by Carlos Rodon throwing one-hundred-thirty pitches, allowing just one hit over the course of 10.0 innings pitched IN ONE GAME.
As for a game that when completed left Wolfpack fans in a much happier mood, click this hyperlink for highlights from State's 8-1 win over the Tar Heels during the Opening Round of the 2013 College World Series. Rodon threw a complete game, the 'Pack's offense looked sharp, and it was just a wonderful day (don't remind me that Carolina eliminated us four days later).
This weekend's three-game series will take place at Boshamer Stadium on Carolina's campus in Chapel Hill. Friday's game is set to start at 6PM, with Saturday's slated to begin at 2PM, and Sunday's first pitch is scheduled for 1PM. All three games will be broadcast on the ACC Network Extra through the WatchESPN App, and a free audio stream will be provided through 88.1 WKNC, as well as on the TuneIn Radio App.
NC State Head Coach Elliott Avent has announced that Reid Johnston (1-0, 2.93 ERA) will make his first start of 2021 on Friday against Austin Love, while Sam Highfill (0-1, 4.87 ERA) will take the hill on Saturday against Max Alba. Like UNC, State has yet to announce a starter for Sunday's game, but I have a good feeling that Matt Willadsen (0-0, 3.60 ERA) will be the guy who likely faces off against the Tar Heels.
After last weekend's frustrating series against Louisville, State was able to pick up a bit of momentum in the midweek. I'm still not overly-confident in this team, as there seems to be too many holes in the pitching staff and not enough consistency amongst the offense. However, I do think State is trending in a better direction than how they started, which still isn't saying much.
I'll take Carolina to win two-of-three this weekend, with their bullpen depth being the main difference throughout the weekend. Hopefully I'm wrong, as nothing would encourage Wolfpack fans more than seeing a series win over that team this weekend.
As always, thanks for reading, and Go Pack!