Before the start of the series on Friday, both of these teams had similar records in conference play. The Tar Heels were 7-8, which was good for a tie of second place in the tight Coastal Division.
The Wolfpack stood at 7-7 (a league game at Boston College was canceled), but was trapped in the middle of the standings in the deeper Atlantic Division.
“There is a lot of pressure, but I think that’s good for us,” UNC first baseman Joe Dudek said following Sunday’s 6-3 loss. “We understand how competitive this league is… I think we have good focus and we understand the type of league we’re playing in.”
The two rivals only met once last year (due to a rain out in the regular season) in what turned out to be a wild opening game of the 2014 ACC Tournament, with UNC prevailing 4-3.
With both teams looking to make a late-season climb in the standings and a bunch of young players looking to become a part of a storied history, a packed Boshamer Stadium served as the perfect backdrop for a rivalry renewed.
“It raises the adrenaline,” UNC reliever Trent Thornton said after striking out a career-high 12 batters on Sunday. “It is awesome having a lot of fans come support you, especially in a rivalry game like this. It’s a lot of fun.”
N.C. State has one of the league’s better offenses, but over the course of the first two games (both UNC victories), UNC head coach Mike Fox got terrific performances from his pitching staff.
In the series’ opener, righty Zac Gallen tossed a complete game six-hitter, allowing just one run that was unearned.
In game two, the combined efforts of freshman starter J.B. Bukauskas (6.1 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs) and reliever Trevor Kelley (3.2 innings, 0 hits, 0 runs) kept the Wolfpack bats contained.
All season long, UNC has relied on strong performances from their Friday and Saturday starters due to injuries and inconsistency in the bullpen. In this closely contested series, Fox got exactly what he needed from his young arms.
In a strange role reversal, the only hiccups on the mound came from Sunday starter and veteran Benton Moss. The senior has been solid in his final campaign as a Tar Heel (5-0 3.21 ERA before Sunday), but against N.C. State, the right-hander had some surprising command issues (he threw 36 pitches in just 2.1 innings before being pulled).
An off outing aside, UNC’s starting rotation has tightened up and become the driving force for the team’s success to date.
“We can be one of the best staff’s in the country, “ Thornton said. “Whether it is Gallen, J.B. or Moss, we have full confidence in whoever we are throwing out there. If we pitch to our capabilities we can win any game.”
Offensively, the theme of the weekend was timely at-bats. Carolina recorded nine hits in their lone loss of the series on Sunday. Oddly, in their two victories, UNC managed to produce just eight hits.
Yet, whether it was a go-ahead seventh-inning home run from Skye Bolt on Friday, or a pair of RBIs to answer N.C. State scores in the previous inning on Saturday, UNC managed to come through when it mattered most.
“All of these games were close, so to win the series Friday and Saturday in one-run ball games like that, we did get some timely hitting,” Dudek said. “Overall I think we had good at-bats this weekend.”
Even though the Heels took two out of three from their rivals, Fox recognized that things weren’t always pretty.
“I think winning a series always helps and our team will feel good about it,” Fox said. “I also think we were fortunate to win with the way we swung the bat. We can’t rely on one or two guys in our lineup. We have to have some production from the bottom of the order. We’ve been really streaky offensively, so we will have to get those guys going.”
Dating back to Apr. 5, UNC has won five of their last six games, but Fox is keenly aware that this group still a lot of room for improvement, especially if they are going to make some noise in the postseason.
“We talk about how well we need to play,” Fox said. “It’s not the best team that wins, it is the team that plays the best. We’ve just got to get better game-by-game. We’re right there. But there are about 10 other teams in our league that can say the same thing.”
UNC (22-14, 9-9) will return to the diamond when they host High Point University (17-15, 6-4) on Wednesday. First pitch at Boshamer Stadium is set for 6 p.m.
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