John Manuel

UNC, NC State step outside of ACC play as homestretch nears

Posted May 5

Joe Dunand (10) of North Carolina State University gets a hit. North Carolina State University and Florida State University face each other in the ACC Championship game from Durham N.C. on Sunday May 24, 2015. Florida State prevailed winning the game 6 to 2. (Chris Baird / WRAL Contributor).

— North Carolina and NC State both swept series at home in Atlantic Coast Conference play over the weekend, but neither team plays in the league this weekend.

The Wolfpack plays at home against Delaware of the Colonial Athletic Association with three games at a Doak Field at Dail Park. The Tar Heels have the week off after Tuesday’s home win against Richmond, and coach Mike Fox admitted over the weekend that he’d rather keep playing, considering how hot his Tar Heels are.

The word ace righty J.B. Bukauskas used Friday night, after a 5-1 victory over Clemson that kicked off the sweep, was “fun.” The outing was a difficult one considering Clemson’s strong lineup, but Bukauskas allowed only a sixth-inning homer to Tigers catcher Chris Williams en route to a seven-inning, one-run outing.

Bukauskas wasn’t his best last week, resorting to his slider early and, for scouts, too often rather than pitching off his fastball. But Bukauskas credited Clemson’s tough offense for forcing him to throw his bread-and-butter pitch more often early, and the junior righthander threw more fastballs as the game went on, with 51 of his 112 pitches winding up sliders, according to one scout’s count.

But Bukauskas’ competitiveness and ability to make pitches, plus North Carolina’s stellar defense behind him, allowed him to work deep into the game, long enough for North Carolina’s offense to awaken. The same kind of thing happened Saturday behind Gianluca Dalatri as Carolina rallied for a 5-4 win with four runs in the eighth inning.

Sunday’s walk-off was just icing on the cake. North Carolina’s formula for victory remained evident: two consistent starters in Bukauskas and Dalatri, a deep middle relief corps led by sophomore righty Brett Daniel and Rodney Hutchison, an opportunistic, deep lineup that pivots off juniors Brian Miller and Logan Warmoth at the top but doesn’t rely on them . . . and closer Josh Hiatt.

Last year, North Carolina registered four saves as a team on the year. Hiatt, recruited out of Charlotte’s Providence High, was not part of the pen as he redshirted after not making the team out of fall practice.

“Shows what we coaches know,” Coach Fox has said on several occasions this spring. “He has been so good for us this year, it’s really a tremendous story.”

North Carolina has swept series from two Top 10 teams this season, Kentucky (its first series) and Clemson (its last), and Hiatt pitched in all three games of each series. He pairs a low-90s fastball with two breaking balls, a curve and a slider that he said he’s added this season, and his best pitch is a firm, mid-80s changeup that has tremendous life to it. He’s used the assortment of pitches, as well as a herky-jerky, deceptive delivery, to dominate opponents to a 2-1, 1.18 mark with 13 saves and 48 strikeouts in 38 innings. He ranks fourth in the country in saves and 11th in appearances.

Even in a Tuesday win against Richmond in which the Tar Heels used five pitchers, “I think I’ll get the night off,” Hiatt joked Sunday after pitching in three straight games. “I actually felt pretty good, my arm felt good, but we have a lot of good pitchers in the bullpen, too.”

As the Tar Heels head into the home stretch of the season with two ACC series remaining—next weekend at Virginia Tech, then a May 16-18 home series with Duke to end the regular season. They’ll need Hiatt at his best to finish it the way they want to—with a national seed in the NCAA tournament and a regional at Boshamer Stadium.

NEWS & NOTES

NC State shortstop Joe Dunand is chasing the league’s home run crown. Dunand’s ACC co-player of the week turn last week included five homers, including a solo shot Friday in the series opener against Virginia Tech. Dunand leads the league with 16 and has seven doubles; he entered the Florida State series three weeks ago with none. His .678 slugging percentage ranks 24th in the country, and he ranks sixth in home runs. Dunand and the Wolfpack face Delaware (24-18, 10-8 CAA) in a non-league series this weekend.

Duke outfielder Griffin Conine, a sophomore who is the son of ex-big leaguer Jeff Conine, had just three extra-base hits last season while hitting .205. He’s powered Duke’s offense all year in 2017 with a .331/.451/.623 season with 12 homers, eighth in the conference and 39th in the country. Conine and the Blue Devils (23-23, 9-15 ACC) are off for the weekend and have two ACC series remaining, at home to Georgia Tech next weekend and at North Carolina. Duke is currently three games up in the win column on the Yellow Jackets for an ACC Tournament spot.

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