For the first time in 24 months, North Carolina and N.C. State will play a regular-season ACC baseball series.
“It has been awhile,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said.
The old rivals will play three games in Chapel Hill, starting on Friday night (7:30 p.m., ESPNU). The Wolfpack and Tar Heels did not meet during the regular season last year. They were scheduled to play in Durham, as a one-off nonconference game, but that game was rained out.
As luck would have it, after an ACC scheduling oversight kept them apart during conference play, the teams met in the ACC tournament, which continued their streak of playing every year since 1918.
The conference schedule is set up now that the two are designated as cross-divisional partners (as they are in football) and will play a three-game series every year.
“We’ve got that all fixed now,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “And that’s good. It’s a great rivalry that everyone looks forward to.”
There’s a good reason for the interest. The teams met five times during the historic 2013 season, including an 18-inning marathon in the ACC tournament and then in pair of games in the College World Series.
Going back to 2003, the series has been about as even as it can get. They’ve played 38 times with UNC holding a 20-18 edge. The cumulative score in those games is 199-194, in UNC’s favor.
“No matter what, these games are always good,” Fox said. “But in a year like this, especially, where we are both on a similar path and about at the same point, it’s just adds to the interest level.”
The Tar Heels (20-13) have won five of their past seven games and enter the series at 7-8 in the ACC.
The Wolfpack (19-12) has won eight of its past 11 games and enter the series at 7-7 in the ACC.
They are both a part of the congested middle of the ACC standings. Halfway through the conference schedule, there are nine teams separated by two games.
ACC newcomer Louisville (14-1) has gotten off to a dominant start, Avent said, and the two Florida schools each have 11 wins.
“But everybody else is bunched together,” Avent said. “We’re pretty happy with where we are but obviously it’s about what happens the rest of the year.”
Avent expected a rebuilding year after losing pitcher Carlos Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner, a pair of first-round picks, but has been pleased with his team’s pitching, especially the bullpen, and the work of new pitching coach Scott Foxhall.
Senior second baseman Logan Ratledge (.380 average, 5 HRs) and sophomore first baseman Preston Palmiero (.378 average, 31 RBI) have been the Wolfpack’s best hitters. Avent has been encouraged by the early returns from freshmen Tommy DeJuneas, a two-way contributor (1.48 ERA), and third baseman Joe Dunand (27 RBI).
North Carolina has had to deal with key injuries to closer Reilly Hovis and shortstop Wood Myers but has been able to adjust. Junior catcher Korey Dunbar has been a revelation with a team-best .330 batting average while freshman pitcher J.B. Bukauskas (3-1, 2.66 ERA) is the latest in a long line of UNC pitching stars.
Fox’s only complaint has been a lack of consistency.
“We’re up and down like everybody else,” Fox said. “We’ve been right there in a few games we felt like we should have won but in this league, there’s a fine line between winning and losing.”
That’s what makes this series important for both sides. Last year’s lone meeting, a 4-3 win by the Tar Heels in the ACC tournament, might have been the difference between UNC making the NCAA field and N.C. State watching from home.
The stakes aren’t quite the same this year, Avent said, but the games are still important.
“There’s a long way to go, so it’s not that situation yet,” Avent said. “But all the teams in our situation (in the ACC race) feel like every series is pivotal.”
N.C. State at UNC baseball series
Game 1: 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 2: Saturday, 6 p.m.
Game 3: Sunday, 2 p.m.