We’re only a few weeks into the spring sports season, but some things have already become abundantly clear about this year’s edition of Diamond Heels. Chief among them is that, after an 8-1 start to the season in which they outscored their opponents 77-20, these Heels are serious.
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 seeded to start the season but had been on the wrong side of their first game. a few games. The Heels were, of course, undefeated, but had yet to quite earn the respect of voters after last year’s uninspiring performance. That quickly changed Friday night, as UNC took a 5-0 lead and survived a late scare to claim a 7-4 win over the Pirates. Brandon Schaeffer dug in as the Friday starter and pitched 5 solid innings against the Pirates, allowing 4 hits, 1 BB, 1 ERA, scoring 5 strikeouts and earning the win. The Heels’ bullpen struggled to close things down, however – after doing a good job of reaching the top of the ninth up 7-2, they allowed a first homer, then with two outs, allowed a runner to hit a bunt due to a pitching error. This runner scored through a poorer defense, and suddenly two runners were on base and the tying run was at home plate. Caden O’Brien finally arrived to calm things down and retired the Pirates’ last batter, earning the save. On the batting side, Vance Honeycutt, now at No. 1 bat for the heels, had the second pitch he saw, and Alberto Osuna led the bottom of the second in matching, which helped give the your early for UNC. The Heels played a good little ball in the third to push the lead to 5-0, then Mac Horvath, who went 2-4 that day, hit a 2-point shot in the 7th to push the lead of UNC at 7-2. .
The Heels eliminated the Pirates entirely on Saturday, but their bats were a little quieter in a 2-0 victory. Max Carlson pitched 5.2 innings, allowing 4 hits and a walk and striking out 5, earning the victory after Angel Zarate’s 2-run brace in the 5th. O’Brien came back to start the ninth and retired all three batters he saw for the stoppage.
On Sunday, as the series moved from Chapel Hill to Greenville for the Heels’ first road game of the season, things got a bit out of hand. Shaddon Peavyhouse worked well in 3 innings of work, giving up 2 runs (1 won) before putting things back in the bullpen, but the Tar Heel bats couldn’t do anything until the ninth inning, where they charged the bases with one out. Unfortunately, two strikeouts ended things there and the Heels suffered their first loss, 5-0.
This week, the Heels had a bit of an odd situation with back-to-back midweek games, against Longwood on Tuesday and then against Winthrop on Wednesday. The game against Longwood opened with an 8-run 6th inning highlighted by a grand slam from Tomas Frick, who was the only UNC starter yet to make it to that point. The heels were just too much for Longwood and won 16-1.
On Wednesday, the Heels quickly outstripped Winthrop, scoring 7 runs over the first four innings while a pitching staff of Will Sandy and Nik Pry limited the Eagles to 5 hits and 2 runs over their 5 sleeves. Coach Scott Forbes went deep into his bullpen to end the game, with 6 pitchers pitching the last 4 innings and O’Brien once again for the game finale.
So far, many of the usual suspects on the batting side for the Heels have performed as expected or better. Angel Zarate still has a 32-game streak on base since last year, and he’s slashing .394/.487/.606 with a team-leading 10 RBI. Johnny Castagnozzi, who became a powerful revelation last year, maintained and improved on this form and also strikes very well for contact, with a line of .452/.528/.742; that batting average leads the team. Frick also has 10 RBIs as he makes good contact, averaging .355. But the indisputable story for the Heels this year so far is Vance Honeycutt, the freshman center fielder who has already moved to No. 1 in the batting order and is coming off 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 cuts 0.414/0.553/1.034, with the last two numbers leading all starters. Yes, I’m sure the last number is his slugging percentage, not his OPS. It’s still early days and the Heels have mostly played weaker competition, so all of those rate stats will go down, but even still, Honeycutt must have one of UNC’s best freshman seasons in a while – even Aaron Sabato didn’t start that hot. Scott Forbes has already drawn comparisons to MLB stars and alumni World events MVP George Springer.
On the pitching side, it’s clear that this year’s bullpen is much 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 personnel with transfers like Schaeffer and Peavyhouse. Carlson’s return from an elbow injury also helped, as he looked really good last year before that happened and now looks safe 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 several times before, but never in a series, so it’s good to see in the spirit of forging stronger bonds between public universities in the Carolinas. Coastal is a perennial baseball powerhouse, so UNC will be tested again and have the chance to prove, after ECUs proved to be a bit of a paper tiger to start the season, that they are back among the tops. of college baseball. I don’t expect the starters to change from the last two series of the weekend. Check back on the Tar Heel blog for more updates as this season continues!