Coming off of a comfortable home win versus Georgia Southern, Tech faced a much tougher opponent in a three-game series against ACC rival No. 13 North Carolina last weekend. Unfortunately, the issues Tech has against ranked opponents cropped up once again — untimely pitching meltdowns and unproductive stretches of plate appearances.
On the season, UNC’s pitching has been solid, holding an earned-run average of 4.21 while conceding an opponent batting average of 0.237. They hit well too, making contact at a respectable team batting average of 0.288 and getting on base. However, the Tar Heels have really distinguished themselves by getting on-base and slamming home runs. Their on-base percentage of 0.413 ranks fourth in the ACC while their 57 homers ranks third in the ACC (for comparison, Tech ranks sixth at 48). Taking a series win was always going to be a challenge, but it is one Tech needed to meet in order to fulfill its ACC contender aspirations.
Tech started the first game in a good spot. Junior pitcher Dawson Brown retired three batters, closing out the top of the first with a nice slider and keeping a clean frame. The second passed in similarly uneventful fashion until Tech scored the first run of the game. Redshirt freshman shortstop Kristian Campbell sent junior infielder John Giesler — working at designated hitter — home to give Tech the 1-0 lead and a chance to build momentum in the fourth inning.
Instead of their good fortune continuing, North Carolina reversed their luck in a blazing hot offensive inning. They scored five runs on four hits, forcing Brown to leave the mound after conceding a RBI double. Coach Danny Hall turned to freshman pitcher Demitri Diamant to close out the inning. Even though the damage continued with a RBI single, Diamant was able to cap the score at 6-1. UNC added another run at the top of the fifth to make it 7-1, but once again, Tech had a chance to respond and failed to capitalize. They opened up the bottom of the fifth with a walk, but then hit into a double play and struck out at the plate.
The top of the sixth again looked dangerous as Diamant faced a bases-loaded situation with only one out. Fortunately, he forced the strikeout and the defense covered him on the groundout in order to end the inning. However, Tech’s offense continued to struggle, save a single by junior centerfielder Jake DeLeo.
Junior pitcher Dalton Smith relieved Diamant in the seventh inning and looked fantastic. In his three innings of action, he struck out seven batters while holding the Tar Heels to three hits. Yet, across three innings, the only hit Tech recorded was a double from redshirt sophomore pitcher Jackson Finley. They lost 8-1 largely due to poor offensive output and a pitching meltdown in the fourth inning.
Due to weather, games on Friday and Saturday turned into a Friday doubleheader that Tech was able to split. In the first game of the doubleheader, the Jackets again got off to a hot start offensively. Campbell and senior infielder Angelo Dispigna both hit doubles, putting Tech up 1-0 hit doubles, putting Tech up 1-0 in the first. However, in a repeat of Friday, the pitching struggled. This time, it was starter Luke Schmolke who gave up six runs in the first three innings. It definitely seemed like Schmolke had issues with his command, frequently conceding walks. UNC did not have any big hits but kept runners moving through consistent contact on three RBI singles. Schmolke was relieved by sophomore pitcher Aeden Finateri in the fourth, but Finateri did not fare much better. In his inning, he allowed two runs and two hits, which pushed UNC’s lead to seven runs. It did not help that Tech’s offense could not keep pace whatsoever, going scoreless across six innings. The pitching would have looked markedly worse if not for junior pitcher Josiah Siegel. Lasting four innings, he only gave up four hits but recorded the first strikeout of the afternoon in the fifth. He followed it up with two more to record the first clean inning of the game for Tech.
Even if it did not affect the game’s outcome, Tech’s batting did spark to life in the last two innings. Dispigna, Finley and senior catcher Jack Rubenstein all hit singles to put two runs on the board. DeLeo then hit a 2-RBI double to make it 8-5. However, North Carolina hit a dagger 2-RBI home run that effectively ended any chance of a comeback, putting them up 10-5. A late run by Tech did nothing to change the outcome as North Carolina clinched the series win.
Fighting to avoid the sweep in game two, Tech started Finley on the mound to limit the UNC offense early. That plan quickly went awry with a leadoff single, stolen base and RBI single. Finley was able to close the inning, but gave up a second run in the second inning before being relieved by redshirt sophomore Ben King. Tech’s hitting did not look much better through two innings. Thankfully, in a rare complete inning, King was able to blank the Tar Heels’ offense in a quick 1-2-3 appearance and the offense responded in a big way. Junior outfielder Stephen Reid hit a huge three-run blast to put Tech in the lead, 3-2. Giesler scored another runner and freshman infielder Nico Senese added an RBI single to put North Carolina in the biggest hole of the series. Five-run innings like this are a tantalizing display of Tech’s offensive potential, which makes it all the more frustrating when they go cold for long stretches. The Tech offense kept the Tar Heels at bay in spite of so-so pitching. Junior pitcher Jackson Vaughan gave up an RBI double, but he was able to get the necessary outs to turn it over to a blazing hot offense. Giesler, Senese, junior infielder Jadyn Jackson, freshman catcher Tyler Minnick and Campbell all recorded hits and added another three runs to Tech’s total. With a five-run cushion, the pitching cruised in the sixth and seventh. The combo of Vaughan and sophomore pitcher Camron Hill did not give up a hit in the sixth while sophomore closer Terry Busse surrendered a meaningless run in the seventh.
Even though the series outcome was sealed, Tech held off the sweep in a commanding win. They will have to take that level of play into an away series against Virginia Tech this weekend.