CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A day after launching five home runs, the long ball didn’t fly the same way for Pitt.
Ron Washington Jr. sent a two-run dinger to the moon in the top of the sixth inning, but no other Panther was able to sail one over the fence Friday evening at Boshamer Stadium. And against the North Carolina Tar Heels – ranked in the top 20 in the D1Baseball.com and USA Today Coaches polls – Pitt needed its bats to be a bit stronger.
Despite leading twice early on, the Panthers fell to the Heels 7-4 in their Atlantic Coast Conference opener.
“I think we did a lot of things right, but we did mess up on the little things today. That’s something we have to work on, something we will fix,” Washington said. “We just have to play our style of baseball.”
The defeat snapped a three-game winning streak for Pitt, and handed UNC back the advantage in the all-time series, 13-12. The Tar Heels extended their winning streak at home in Chapel Hill to 16 games, a run dating back to last season.
“You tip your cap to (North Carolina). I thought with two outs and two strikes, they did a good job of really cashing in with some big hits. They got it done with two outs and two strikes,” Pitt coach Mike Bell said. “That’s just the way the ball kind of fell. When you look at it, the hits were kind of even, the defensive miscues were even – it’s probably the difference in the ball game, their two-out hits.”
North Carolina (11-2, 1-0 ACC) took the lead for the final time in the bottom of the sixth inning after Pitt (8-5, 0-1 ACC) righty starter Matt Gilbertson surrendered a single to Mac Horvath that scored Danny Serretti, giving the Heels a 5-4 advantage. Indeed, that run came in on a two-out hit, and that run prompted Bell to make a pitching change.
In 5.2 innings of work, Gilbertson had zero strikeouts, his first outing of such of the year. He gave up a total of seven hits and four earned runs.
“I thought Gilby was OK today. He kept us in the ball game and gave us a chance to win” Bell said. “Gilby is a contact guy. They’re an aggressive team. They did a good job of putting the ball in play and finding holes.”
After allowing an unearned run in the bottom of the first, Gilbertson settled into the game, sitting down each of the next six batters he faced, forcing each of them into outs in the infield. Gilbertson’s no-hit bid ended in the fourth inning when UNC second baseman Johnny Castagnozzi singled up the middle. Castagnozzi and another baserunner advanced to third and second after what Bell called an “uncharacteristic” balk by Gilbertson. Both runners wound up scoring, giving the host Heels their first lead of the game.
The Heels extended that lead in the fifth, when Vance Honeycutt sent a solo dinger over the centerfield wall.
In the top of the sixth, Pitt snapped a three-inning scoring drought when Washington muscled a homer of his own over the centerfield wall, driving in himself and Tatem Levins, who had singled three pitches prior. That tied the game at 4-4, and the Heels made a pitching change a few moments later, after Pitt’s Bryce Hulett notched a double off lefty starter Brandon Schaeffer. Statistically, it was the worst outing of the season for the Heels’ junior from Auburn, Pa. Schaeffer had been 2-0 in three outings with a 2.60 ERA. In 5.1 innings of work against Pitt, he gave up a season-high 10 hits, a season-high four runs, and struck out a season-low three batters.
“I was proud of our guys and their at-bats. I thought they did a great job of matching up with the lefty early on,” Bell said. “That’s a veteran bullpen over there… Our guys put together some quality at-bats, and that’s what they’re going to do for the year.”
The homer was the second of the season for Washington, and the 22nd of his five-year career at Pitt.
“It was an 0-2 count, I was thinking fastball away, but he left me an off-speed pitch up. I just stayed back and did what I had to do to it,” Washington said. “I’m just thinking drive the ball – doubles – just stay right in the middle of the field. I got the right pitch.”
Sky Duff started the scoring for Pitt, leading the game off with a double down the left field line. Three pitched later, Jeffrey Wheler brought him home, slicing a ball into the right-center gap for a single. Pitt added to its scoring total in the second inning, as CJ Funk reached base on a fielder’s choice. He then stole second base, then hustled all the way home on Anderson Jor’s single to right-center.
Gilbertson was relieved in the sixth inning by Quin Konuszewski. CJ McKennitt and Brady Devereux also took the mound for Pitt. The trio combined for two strikeouts and gave up two runs in 2.1 innings.
Wheler and Hulett had the best days at the plate for Pitt, each finishing with three hits.
The Panthers will continue their three-game series in Chapel Hill on Saturday, with the first pitch at 2 p.m. Logan Evans is expected to start on the mound for Pitt.
“Today was a Friday ACC game. They did some things right, we could’ve done some things better,” Bell said. “We’re going to come compete tomorrow.”