Pitt baseball broke a seven-game slide with a 5-3 win over Pool C opponent North Carolina on Tuesday night. After sliding back onto the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Panthers entered this week’s ACC Tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina needing to stack wins. Losses are not an option for this team if they want a shot at their first Tournament berth since 1995.
Their tournament-opening win on Tuesday was the first step on a path back to bigger aspirations and it earned them another meaningful game in the postseason on Thursday night against No. 16 NC State (28-15 overall, 19-14 ACC), who kick-started Pitt’s (23-19 overall, 17-17 ACC) recent struggles with a three-game sweep at Charles L. Cost Field earlier this month. The winner will advance to the single-elimination semifinal round on Saturday.
It’s not enough to say that Wolfpack are a red-hot team. They are, but to attribute this team’s recent success to simple momentum would do a disservice to their whole body of work this season. This is a good team that has overcome a 1-8 start in ACC play to become one of the league’s most dominant forces. There’s a reason they’re the nation’s No. 16 squad, according to D1Baseball.
NC State has won 24 of their last 30 games, dating back to March 23 and claimed victory in six of their last eight ACC series. Over that stretch, the Wolfpack are 12-3 and have won four of five series against top-25 opponents. If it wasn’t for an early-season COVID pause, which the Panthers know first-hand are hard to recover from, NC State would be considered one of college baseball’s elite.
The potent Pack offense is led by Jonny “Barrels” Butler, whose .406 batting average tops the ACC. But it’s a team effort. The starting lineup features seven hitters with an average above .250 and five who hit north of .300. Four starters have hit double digit home runs and seven have more than 25 RBIs.
Put simply: this NC State team can hit and they have the depth to make life hell on a Pitt pitching staff that burned two of its better relievers — righties Chase Smith and Jordan McCrum — on Tuesday night.
It will be essential for the Panthers to start fast on Thursday night. In their three games vs. NC State two weeks ago, Pitt led for a total of five innings and spent most of their time trying to come from behind against a relentless opponent attack.
The Panthers will need to tap the strategy that served them well in the early part of this season. An early lead allows them to lean on the pitching staff, a strength of this squad, like they did in Tuesday’s win vs. North Carolina.
Pitching matchups were set on Wednesday afternoon, but simply confirmed what was expected. Pitt’s No. 2 starter, right-hander Matt Gilbertson, will face Wolfpack ace Reid Johnston, who went 7 ⅓ innings and surrendered just two earned runs while striking out nine against the Panthers on May 14. NC State will hope for another long start from Johnston so that they can turn directly to closer Evan Justice to close the game out.
The fourth meeting of this season between the Panthers and Wolfpack is scheduled for a 7 p.m. first pitch from Truist Field. The game can be watched on regional sports networks or streamed on ACC Network Extra.