John Manuel

Takeaways from the UNC-NC State baseball weekend that was

Posted April 18

— North Carolina isn’t at 2013 levels, but the fact that question can even be asked says a lot about how the 2017 Tar Heels are playing.

After Saturday’s win, UNC hitters such as third baseman Kyle Datres and outfielder Brendan Riley sounded confident as any sophomores would who were in the midst of an 11-game win streak, which ended Sunday in a 4-2 loss to the Wolfpack. Both players spoke matter-of-factly of the Heels’ good pitching and timely hitting as if it were something to take for granted, as if North Carolina hadn’t missed regionals for consecutive seasons.

Coach Mike Fox doesn’t take winning for granted, especially not after the last two seasons. He’s worked hard to help players such as Datres, Riley and catcher Cody Roberts thrive as sophomores after modest freshman seasons.

Last year, Datres batted .250 with three homers. He’s already doubled the home run total this season while sporting a .299/.416/.528 line. Roberts hit just seven extra-base hits in 2016 while slugging .315. Now he’s hitting .306/.409/.435 with 10 extra-base hits, including two homers.

“Kyle, he failed last year, if you can call it failure,” coach Mike Fox said. “It was really just being a freshman in this league. He lost some confidence, and it’s a struggle for just about anyone in this game when you don’t have confidence.

“He’s worked hard and improved and he’s really helped us this season.”

The Heels’ lineup isn’t as deep as it was in ’13, when Colin Moran led the nation with 91 RBIs and UNC scored 542 runs, a school record. However, it is a deep lineup, with seven regulars batting .299 or better, and has the athleticism to defend well. Roberts and Riley especially bring arm strength to key spots at catcher and right field, while center fielder Brian Miller, shortstop Logan Warmoth and second baseman Zack Gahagan combine with Roberts to make UNC strong up the middle defensively.

At 29-7, 14-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, North Carolina is now ranked third in the Baseball America Top 25 and has a four-game lead on Virginia in the Coastal Division. The Heels go on the road next weekend at Pittsburgh, the first of their four remaining league series, which include home sets against Clemson and struggling Duke sandwiched around a visit to Virginia Tech.

The Heels are better at the top of the pitching staff than in ’13, as J.B. Bukauskas (6-0, 1.40, 81 SO/58 IP) brings a power arm that 59-win team just didn’t have. Several of Carolina’s key pitchers—No. 2 starter Luca Dalatri (4-2, 2.39), closer Josh Hiatt (1-1, 1.52, 10 saves), Tyler Baum (4-0, 2.67), Austin Bergner (3-2, 3.38)—are freshmen. At some point, they’ll hit a wall like many freshmen do. That means holdovers Rodney Hutchison (4-1, 3.12) and Jason Morgan (3-0, 3.94) will still play key roles down the stretch.

But the ceiling for this Tar Heels team . . . well, it may not be the roof. But it could be Omaha.

Pack Needs A Hot Stretch

North Carolina State avoided a sweep after falling Friday and Saturday, which apparently is now par for the course.

The Wolfpack has yet to sweep a series; it also has yet to have been swept.

As a result, State is 20-18, 8-10 in the ACC, certainly not where it wants to be but not far from where it needs to be.

The Pack’s next three ACC series are all winnable—at Boston College (12-21, 3-15) next weekend, with a game at Fenway Park; at home against Virginia Tech (19-19, 7-11), then at Pittsburgh (15-17, 7-11). There’s a non-league series against Delaware in there before the Pack closes the season with Clemson at home.

It’s fair to see the Pack winning four of those five series, and with an RPI already up to No. 37, according to warrennolan.com, State controls its own NCAA tournament destiny. But it has to win the series it is supposed to win, and a sweep in one of them wouldn’t hurt.

“We’re starting to play pretty good,” coach Elliott Avent said. “We just need to play steady down the stretch.”

The keys to doing that:

• Getting Johnny Piedmonte back. The 6-foot-8 righthander tossed five scoreless innings in relief Sunday to earn the win, cooling a North Carolina lineup that had averaged just shy of 10 runs per game during an 11-game winning streak. A healthy Piedmonte (3-0, 1.85) would firm up State’s weekend rotation and allow either hard-throwing Michael Bienlien (2-1, 4.23) or savvy senior lefty Sean Adler (3-5, 4.05) to help shore up the bullpen.

Make no mistake, the Pack bullpen needs the help. Freshman Dalton Feeney brings power but little experience (16 IP). Righties Austin Staley (1-2, 3.60, 4 SV) and Joe O’Donnell (4-0, 4.00) have had their moments but also have been hit hard of late, while righty Tommy DeJuneas (2-0, 3.22) has more walks (15) than strikeouts (14).

• Coax a hot streak out of some veterans. Right fielder Brock Deatherage hit his second homer of the season Sunday and had two singles Saturday, raising his slash line to .252/.357/.361. Infielder Stephen Pitarra has heated up to .278/.409/.333 after losing his job at second base with a cold start; he’s now playing first every day and providing a leadoff spark again.

If the Pack can get the left side of its infield going in all-or-nothing shortstop Joe Dunand (.250/.338/.589, 12 homers) and tough-luck third baseman Evan Mendoza (.222/.309/.292), it should have enough firepower to make a run at being a regional team.

Duke Loses At Home

The less said about this weekend for Duke, the better. The Blue Devils lost two of three to Boston College, which had only one victory in league play in its first 15 games. They avoided the sweep behind Ryan Day on Sunday, as Day gave up only one hit in seven innings in a 9-2 victory.

But Duke lost 3-1 Friday and blew a 5-1 lead to drop a 15-6 decision and lose the series. BC scored five runs in the fourth inning and nine runs in the sixth to blow out the Blue Devils.

“If you go back and look at our pitching woes,” coach Chris Pollard said Saturday, “it’s the story of the season. It’s giving up the big inning. It’s the inability to get off the field with two outs and two strikes.”

Now Duke is just 19-19, 7-11, with a 153 RPI that makes an at-large bid unlikely. The Blue Devils have three road series remaining, at Louisville and Notre Dame the next two seasons and at the end of the season at North Carolina.

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