ACC Gauntlet Continues For Virginia Tech Baseball At No. 11 North Carolina

The pitching has to be on if Virginia Tech wants to take a series in Chapel Hill this weekend. (Morgan Gay)

Virginia Tech baseball faces another difficult ACC test as it takes the trip to Chapel Hill for a series against No. 11 North Carolina this weekend.

The Tar Heels (31-10, 15-6 ACC) currently sit atop the Coastal Division despite being picked to finish second in the preseason poll (86 votes). They hold a two-game lead over No. 6 Duke and a three-game advantage over No. 14 Virginia and the Hokies (26-12, 12-9). Despite losing their last series to NC State, they became the first team to punch their ticket to the 2024 ACC Baseball Championship last week. Tech can join them with a sweep this weekend.

In its fourth season under head coach Scott Forbes, UNC is squarely in position to make its seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament with a well-rounded roster that is No. 7 in the RPI. That roster boasts perhaps the best offense in the ACC and returns many familiar names from the team that beat the Hokies in Blacksburg last season.

In league play, the Tar Heels rank first in home runs (51) and slugging percentage (.569) while sitting in the top five in a multitude of other categories, including average (.295), on-base percentage (.382), hits (213), runs (171), RBI (159) and walks (99).

Leading the way is the junior outfield tandem of Casey Cook and Vance Honeycutt, each of whom has raked thus far in 2024. Cook ranks second in the ACC with 56 RBI, boasting a 1.052 OPS with 12 home runs. Honeycutt has done it all for the Tar Heels in center field, ranking fifth in the league in homers with 16 and third in steals with 22 while putting up an OPS of 1.092. 

Designated hitter Albert Osuna has also provided a slugging lift with 15 doubles — good for fifth in the league — and 11 home runs with a 1.063 OPS.

The Tar Heels’ offense has also been given a lift in the form of a pair of transfers: first baseman Parks Harber and right fielder Anthony Donofrio.

Parks Harber has been terrific for UNC this season. Virginia Tech has its hands full with a potent offense this weekend. (North Carolina athletics)

Harber came over from Georgia and has immediately nestled in as one of the better first baseman in the ACC. He’s top-10 in homers with 14 and the team’s highest OPS at 1.106. Donofrio, a grad transfer from Quinnipiac, has been a Swiss Army knife of sorts and ranks first in the ACC in triples (5), seventh in steals (16) and 14th in walks (30) while putting up a .965 OPS.

That elite lineup is backed up by a sound rotation, though it has been shaken up a bit. Usual weekend starter Folger Boaz suffered an injury three weeks ago against South Carolina and has yet to pitch again, opening the door for Aidan Haugh to slot in on Sundays. The junior righty has been solid, highlighted by a quality start last week against NC State, though he’ll have a tough test against Tech’s lefty-heavy lineup.

The good news for Carolina is it has one of the best starting pitching tandems in the ACC going on Fridays and Saturdays with Jason DeCaro and junior Shea Prague.

DeCaro has been like Brett Renfrow — a true freshman who has emerged as his team’s ace. He ranks top-10 in the league in ERA (4.41) and opposing avg (.240) while racking up a team-high 43 strikeouts. Prague, a left-handed transfer from Elon, has held down Saturdays with the ACC’s eight-best ERA (3.71) and fewest walks (7).

Like last week against Duke’s Charlie Beilenson, the Hokies will face another of the league’s best relievers in Matthew Matthijs, who leads the ACC in appearances (24) and wins (11). He’s struck out 40 batters while walking just nine in his 38 ⅓ innings of work this season, so if Tech and Carolina find themselves knotted up late, the Tar Heels will have the luxury of playing a true ace out of their bullpen.

And that’s where this series is going to be decided. Virginia Tech made a change to their rotation for the first time last week, moving usual Saturday starter Wyatt Parliament to a relief role and moving Brett Renfrow into that spot, turning Fridays into bullpen games with Jeremy Neff starting things off. After Tuesday’s win over George Mason, Tech head coach John Szefc said that he’ll continue to implement that plan, hoping to get better results behind Jeremy Neff than he did last Friday against Duke.

If the Hokies don’t get quality outings from their relievers in this series, they won’t be able to compete late in ballgames. They’re facing a truly elite offense, and while their own lineup has proven its ability to keep up, the bullpen has been a deciding factor late in ballgames in this recent skid. If Tech is to come away with its first series win in a month — which would triple UNC’s current home loss count (24-1 record) — the buck starts and stops with the pen. It needs to be better. 

Times and Streaming Designations:

Friday, April 26: 6 p.m. ET on ACC Network Extra
Saturday, April 27: 2 p.m. ET on ACC Network Extra
Sunday, April 28: 1 p.m. ET on ACC Network Extra

Projected Pitching Matchups (Virginia Tech vs. North Carolina):

Friday: LHP Jeremy Neff (0-0, 7.04 ERA in 15 ⅓ innings) vs. RHP Jason DeCaro (2-1, 4.41 ERA in 49 innings)

Saturday: RHP Brett Renfrow (3-1, 3.50 ERA in 54 innings) vs. LHP Shea Prague (2-1, 3.71 ERA in 43 ⅔ innings)

Sunday: RHP Griffin Stieg (3-2, 4.79 ERA in 47 innings) vs. RHP Aidan Haugh (3-0, 3.06 ERA in 32 ⅓ innings)

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