Love Dazzles, Thompson Shines in ACC-Opening UNC Win
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- If you were betting on a converted reliever making a statement and enjoying a coming out part of sorts in Thursday’s ACC opener between Virginia and North Carolina, perhaps the safe bet would have been on Cavaliers lefthander Andrew Abbott.
A Freshman All-American in 2018 and a member of USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team after the 2019 season, Abbott came back to campus in 2021 after going undrafted to prove himself as a starter and he last weekend passed his first test against Connecticut with flying colors.
Abbott was solid Thursday, giving up three runs in six innings. But it was UNC third-year sophomore Austin Love who put his best foot forward in a 3-2 Tar Heels win. The righthander threw 7.1 innings, giving up three hits and two runs with two walks and six strikeouts.
Truthfully, those numbers don’t even really reflect just how dominant he was. Using a fastball that primarily sat between 92-95 mph, a mid-80s slider and a firm changeup, Love didn’t allow a runner until the fourth, when he walked Virginia left fielder Marc Lebreux. He faced the minimum through six innings, thanks to a double play to erase the Lebreux walk in the fourth, and he didn’t allow a hit until the seventh, when the Cavaliers’ Zack Gelof lined a single through the left side.
All of this, mind you, comes one week after Love threw six no-hit innings against James Madison on Opening Day with two walks and nine strikeouts. It’s safe to say that it’s so far, so good on his transition.
“I think he can hold his velocity and I think he’s got pitchability,” coach Scott Forbes said . “It was just good to see his hard work pay off because he’s a phenomenal kid and a great leader.”
Not only did Love pass a big test by holding down a talented Virginia lineup and helping secure a win against the No. 2 team in the country to open ACC play, but he passed little tests along the way that you would want to see a converted reliever pass.
After cruising through the first six innings, he hit his first snag in the seventh, when he walked Lebreux again and Gelof singled with one out. At that critical juncture, with a 3-0 lead hanging in the balance and with this now being tied for the longest outing of his career, he reached back and struck out Alex Tappen on a 95 mph fastball and then got a foul pop out off the bat of Devin Ortiz to end the inning.
He also did a fantastic job with arguably Virginia’s most talented hitter, second-year freshman outfielder Chris Newell. Love got him out in front for a soft groundout to first base in the third inning, struck him out swinging in the sixth, and then induced another soft grounder to first in the seventh with men on second and third and no outs for his final recorded out. That groundout scored the first Cavaliers run of the game, but retiring Newell there kept that rally from becoming a five-alarm fire situation.
It was truly a complete performance, and you never would have thought it came from a pitcher who hadn’t really been in this specific situation before.
“We’ve been fortunate to see Austin Love as a reliever, but we also got to see him all fall prepare for this and work to be a starter,” Forbes said. “I’ve always thought he would be a great starter. He’s a horse. He can handle a lot of innings.”
Love, after redshirting in 2018, had a big role in the UNC bullpen in 2019 before getting off to a slow start with a 6.75 ERA in 2020. Now, like Abbott, he’s back and working to prove something.
Chiefly, he’s out to prove that he’s a high-end Friday starter in the ACC, and while that’s a high bar to clear, he’s well on his way toward clearing it already. And while he’s happy to have the opportunity to be back with the team now and work in the role he holds, you can’t help but think that he’s also out to show that he’s the type of arm that should have been drafted last June.
“I was hoping to get drafted last year, basically that’s everybody’s dream,” Love said. “But once the draft was over and I hadn’t got picked, I just knew I was going to come back and try to make some teams regret it, I guess.”
It’s also safe to say that UNC doesn’t win this game, and Love therefore doesn’t get to savor his performance in quite the same way, if it weren’t for third-year sophomore center fielder Justice Thompson, who put on a show that has to be among the best all-around performances for any position player so far this season.
Defensively, he put on a masterclass in center field. Early on, he made great reads on a couple of scalding line drives hit right at him, making the catches look easy. Then, in the fourth, he glided from his position all the way to the warning track in right-center field to slide and make a catch, robbing Nic Kent of extra bases.
In just about any other game, that would have been the play of the day, but instead, that came in the top of the ninth. With UNC clinging to its 3-2 lead, Thompson ran straight back on a ball off the bat of Gelof that just kept carrying and leapt up to catch it right up against the wall. At the very least, he robbed Gelof of an extra-base hit that would have put the tying run in scoring position, but it’s also possible that the ball was going out, which means he might actually have robbed a game-tying homer.
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Thompson himself isn’t sure whether the ball was going out or not, but it’s a moot point now, because he brought it back.
“I did everything I could to make sure it wasn’t a home run, and I did just that,” he said.
Others were effusive in their praise for his defensive play as well. Forbes admitted that he might be the best defensive center fielder he’s coached in 15 years at UNC, and Love expressed the type of confidence in him that is clearly earned after the defensive clinic on Thursday.
“That guy is unbelievable,” Love said of Thompson. “Anything hit out there, I for sure believe is going to get caught.”
Offensively, Thompson got the scoring started with an RBI double in the first, sitting back and shooting an Andrew Abbott offspeed pitch the other way, off the glove of a diving Devin Ortiz at first base. Three innings later, he laid down a perfect bunt for a single, and in the sixth, he launched a 415-foot solo home run to left field that left the bat at 109 mph.
With second baseman Johnny Castagnozzi having hit a solo homer in the fifth for UNC’s second run, Thompson’s solo shot in the sixth ended up being the deciding tally.
It was a day unlike any other for a talented player.
“I’ll be completely honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had a game like that,” Thompson said. “It was awesome to go out there and be able to help the team win in every aspect that I could.”
For UNC to get where it wants to go this season in a deep ACC, it will require small steps before big leaps, and on Thursday, led by Love and Thompson, we saw the first of what the Tar Heels will be a season full of steps in that direction.