The writing has been on the wall ever since Pitt baseball capped their regular season by suffering a three-game sweep at the hands of last-place Wake Forest: in order to make the NCAA Tournament, the Panthers needed as many wins as possible in the ACC Tournament.
“We started a new season today,” head coach Mike Bell said. “And all we asked for was an opportunity.”
And with their backs against the wall, Pitt turned in a performance reminiscent of their early-season excellence. They won on the strength of their pitching and defense, which was as good as it’s been since before the recent seven-game losing streak had begun. The offense earned a lead with small ball and protected it with a loud, long home run from one of its stars.
The Panthers (23-19 overall, 17-17 ACC) topped North Carolina (26-25 overall, 18-19 ACC) 5-3 at Truist Field in Charlotte, North Carolina on Tuesday night in a high-strung ACC Tournament battle between two teams desperate for wins. With their opportunities to build a resume worthy of a spot in the NCAA Tournament dwindling, Pitt capitalized and has earned themselves another meaningful game in the ACC Tournament.
The energy and desire was apparent from the jump. After taking a 1-0 lead in the first off of an RBI groundout from sophomore shortstop Brock Franks, the Panther defense came up clutch. With a runner on first and two outs, UNC catcher Max Riermer doubled into the right-center field gap, just beyond the diving reach of Nico Popa.
Center fielder Jordan Anderson picked up the ball and executed a perfect relay with second baseman David Yanni and catcher Riley Wash. Wash made a diving tag to nail Mac Horvath, who was trying to score all the way from first, and end the inning. He celebrated the final out with a pump of his fist before returning to the dugout.
On the mound, Pitt starter Mitch Myers, pitching on short rest, tossed 4 ⅔ innings and allowed just two runs on 89 pitches. After throwing 111 pitches on Thursday vs. Wake Forest, Myers came back out on Tuesday and tied down a talented Tar Heel lineup.
He was relieved by senior righty Chase Smith, who endured his longest and most consecutive outing of the season. The side-arm thrower lasted 2 ⅓ innings and allowed just one run on one hit and a walk.
Smith’s biggest out came in the bottom of the fifth. The Panthers had entered the inning with a three-run lead, their largest since May 7 vs. Boston College, but the Tar Heels had cut into the deficit and chased Myers with a two-run single. Smith entered with two on and two outs, and preserved a Pitt slim lead by eliciting a groundout from Danny Serretti.
“I thought the key to the game tonight, we had a gutsy performance from Mitch on four days’ rest,” Mike Bell said. “Getting a lead and then we got the ball to the guys who have been big for us all season. Chase Smith with a big 2 ⅔ innings in relief and then he handed it off to Jordan [McCrum] in the end.”
The Panthers added some insurance runs in the top of the eighth. Clean-up hitter Ron Washington Jr.’s two-run home run, which head coach Mike Bell said he thought was “hit into another state”, traveled 406 feet to dead center and made it 5-3 in favor of the visitors.
Following Smith on the hill was closer Jordan McCrum, who entered with no one out and two on in the eight, needing six outs to earn his sixth save of the year. He allowed one run over his two innings pitched, but ended the game with a strikeout looking of Riemer and held a single finger to his lips, silencing the UNC dugout after securing the victory.
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) May 26, 2021
Standing in the way of Pitt and a trip to the tournament semifinals is a red-hot NC State squad. But despite the results from their last meeting — a dominant sweep at Charles L. Cost Field by the Wolfpack — Bell says his squad is not intimidated. Their experience vs. top teams this year will serve them well.
“We’ve got 17 wins vs. the Quad 1, which is the top-50 teams in the country,” Bell said postgame. “I think that’s top-five [nationally]. So we know we’ve got a big challenge ahead of us, but we feel like we are more than capable.”
The Panthers and Wolfpack will clash on Thursday night at Truist Field. First pitch is slated for 7 p.m.