2019 Baseball Preview: ACC Semis vs. North Carolina

boston college baseball

On Wednesday morning, Boston College baseball used an inspired performance from Dan Metzdorf and some timely hitting to knock off top-seeded Louisville and advance to the ACC Tournament semifinals. Now, on Saturday, the No. 12 Eagles will aim to continue a red-hot stretch into the championship game as they take on fifth-seeded and No. 23 North Carolina—the only team that swept BC in the regular season.

Who is BC playing?
No. 23 North Carolina (40-17, 17-13 Atlantic Coast)

When is BC playing?
Saturday, May 25, 1 p.m.

Where is BC playing?
Durham Bulls Athletics Park, Durham, N.C.

How to Watch:
The game will be broadcast across the ACC’s regional sports networks, including NESN+, and streamed on ACC Network Extra (via WatchESPN).

How They Got Here:

UNC: The Tar Heels needed plenty of dramatics to secure a semifinal spot. On Wednesday, UNC faced off against rival Virginia and slipped past the Cavaliers in 10 innings. The Tar Heels took an early 2-0 lead through six, but the Cavaliers scored a run in both the seventh and the eighth to force extras. There, UNC loaded the bases and Caleb Roberts was hit by a pitch to allow the winning run to waltz home. Two days later, the Tar Heels faced off against No. 17 Miami—which blew out UVA, 10-3—and knocked off the Hurricanes in extra innings. This time, it took 11 innings, with UNC erasing an early 5-0 deficit. The Tar Heels chipped away until Michael Busch hit a two-run home run in the eighth inning to tie it up, then took the lead for the first time and for good via a sacrifice fly from Ike Freeman and a RBI single from Ashton McGee.

BC: With the odds stacked against them—the No. 12 seed playing against the eighth and top seed in consecutive early morning games—the Eagles rose to the occasion. First, they slipped past Clemson, 7-5, in 11 innings. BC built a 5-2 lead on the strength of a season-high four home runs, including two from Cody Morissette, but the bullpen coughed up three runs in the eighth to send it to extras. There, in the top of the 11th, Peter Burns drove in a run with a ball that took a wicked hop over the first baseman’s head and Dante Baldelli added insurance with a single. The next day, momentum in hand, BC leaned on Metzdorf and provided more than enough run support in a 5-1 win. Metzdorf struck out seven and allow one unearned run in his first career complete game effort, and Jake Alu went 2-for-4 with three RBIs out of the leadoff spot.

Pitching Matchups:

With both teams using their top-two pitchers—BC threw Pelio and Metzdorf, UNC used Tyler Baum and Austin Bergner—the semifinal will be defined by lesser known arms stepping up. The Eagles listed righthander John Witkowski as their starter in their game notes, which would be the senior’s third start of the year in an opener-like role. Witkowski fared well in the other two, combing for four innings against Duke and Massachusetts Lowell while allowing a lone run and striking out two. On the season, Witkowski has racked up 28 strikeouts to just three walks in 26 innings, but also boasts a 6.58 ERA, as opponents are hitting .290 against him. He’ll be up against Tar Heels southpaw Austin Sandy, who has done a little bit of everything this year. Sandy has made 19 appearances, nine starts, and thrown 47.2 innings with a 1.24 K/BB ratio and a 6-plus ERA.

Sandy will likely attempt to alleviate the burden on his bullpen, though, as UNC has played 21 innings in the last two days. Sandy went six innings against Pittsburgh two outings ago, and head coach Mike Fox will hope for something like that. The Tar Heels’ top reliever Joey Lancellotti has thrown five innings over that span and Austin Love, the team’s leader in appearance by a healthy margin (10), threw 6 1/3 on Friday alone.

That’s a much different story than Mike Gambino and the Eagles, as Metzdorf went the distance on Wednesday. Against Clemson the day prior, the BC arms weren’t quite up to par in the early going—Thomas Lane and Matt Gill allowed three earned runs and registered just five outs—but Joey Walsh turned in a strong 3 1/3 innings to close out the game. That means that Gambino will have plenty of options to follow Witkowski, whether it’s Emmet Sheehan (who impressed against Notre Dame), Joe Mancini, or Travis Lane. BC’s bullpen has been a weak spot at times this year, posting a 6.46 ERA with opponents hitting .294 against, so it’ll be interesting to see how those pitchers respond on such a big stage.

Opposing Lineup:

The Tar Heels finished the regular season near the middle of the pack in the conference by most metrics. They were ninth in average (.269), sixth in runs scored (392), and seventh in home runs (60). UNC isn’t a particularly fast or aggressive team on the basepaths, but it boasts a lot of patient hitters at the plate and finished third in on-base percentage (.392). There’s two big names to know—Busch, a first baseman, and Aaron Sabato, a designated hitter. Both earned All-ACC First Team honors, making the Tar Heels one of three teams to land two members of their lineup on the highest level team.

Sabato finished 12th in the ACC with a .335 batting average, slugging a conference-best 22 doubles with 13 home runs and 54 RBIs. Busch, meanwhile, slashed .278/.531/.435 and matched Sabato with 13 long balls while also driving in 52 runs and racking up 54 walks to just 36 strikeouts. Those aren’t the only two dangerous hitters to keep an eye on, though. Second baseman Dylan Enwiller is a speed threat when he gets on as he’s a perfect 11-for-11 on stolen bases, outfielder Dylan Harris drew 51 walks in the regular season and scored 56 runs, and left fielder Jackson Hesterlee went went 0-for-4 against the Hurricanes but has seen his average climb to .295 on the year. Then there’s ACC All-Freshman selection Danny Seretti, a shortstop who has hit .291 with 40 RBIs.

Last Time They Met:

The Tar Heels swept the regular season series, but that’s not to say it wasn’t close in the early going. BC lost consecutive 11-inning games during a Saturday doubleheader in a heartbreaking manner, then saw the weekend finale fall apart. In the series opener, BC took a one-run lead in the top of the ninth with a three-run frame, but UNC answered to force extras. Two innings later, Busch reached on a single, and an error committed by Eagles shortstop Brian Dempsey allowed the Tar Heels to walk it off.

The teams regrouped later in the day and it was much of the same story. UNC built a comfortable 7-1 lead through four innings, but similar to the BC lacrosse team, the deficit wasn’t too much for the Eagles to overcome. BC scored runs in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth—including two in the final frame—to tie it up at 10 apiece. Once again, though, it wasn’t in the cards for an upset as Sabato doubled in a run to end it in the 11th.

Hoping to avoid a series sweep, BC used a six-run third in the weekend finale to take a 6-2 lead through four innings. The Tar Heels cut it to two in the fifth, then blew the game open with a 12-run sixth inning. That proved to be an insurmountable deficit, as the Eagles would get two runs back in the eighth but were still doubled up, 16-8.

Outlook:

This is a tremendously important game for BC’s chances to make the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles have won nine of 11 and are playing their best baseball of the year, climbing to 53rd in D1Baseball.com’s RPI rankings. A win over UNC would only further Gambino’s case that this team deserves to be in—they’re 4-9 against top-25 teams in RPI and 6-6 vs. teams ranked 26-50. The Tar Heels enter as likely weekend hosts—all the way up at No. 15—so a victory here would not only be huge for the program as it attempts to make its mark in the ACC, but also for one that wants to keep playing in a manner similar to 2016.

Featured Image by Robert Willett / The News & Observer

Bradley Smart
About Bradley Smart 334 Articles
Bradley is the sports editor for The Heights. He believes that America does truly run on Dunkin, baseball teams should always wear stirrups, you can't outrun a bear, and being down 3-1, in anything, is never cause for concern. You can follow him on Twitter @bradleysmart15.