CHAPEL HILL — One year ago, UNC relief pitcher Davis Palermo was called upon just once during the Tar Heels short postseason run that ended in Regional play.
His earned run average finished at 6.88 with 17 walks in 17 appearances as North Carolina hovered around .500 on the season. Then, something clicked for the third-year freshman near the tail end of the season. He started to command his fastball and off-speed pitches, but it was more than that. His confidence had changed.
“I realized that I was good and that my stuff did play,” Palermo said. “You just have to go out there and believe in yourself.”
Now, the 2018 Northwood graduate is one of the top relievers not only at UNC, but in the nation. He finished with a 2.72 ERA with 74 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings pitched this past season. That was enough to earn him third-team All American honors from Perfect Game USA.
“You really try not to think about (the accolades),” Palermo said. “You think about how can I help my team win. It’s always cool to see hard work pay off. But the personal accolades come with team success. There’s no way I would even be considered for these if I didn’t have a great group of teammates and a great pitching coach, a great catcher and great people around me.”
Palermo was a late bloomer in high school, as well. It wasn’t until his junior year in 2017 that he began to get looks at the next level. It was before then, however, that his high school coach, Thomas Parks, knew he was special.
In a battle of conference foes in 2016, Parks turned to Palermo to face an Orange High School team that started Bryse Wilson, now a reliever in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Palermo threw a two-hit shutout into the fifth inning and was pulled with a 1-0 lead. But after he left the game, six of the next seven Orange hitters reached base and two came around to score as the Panthers defeated the Chargers, 2-1.
“That’s the first time that I thought this kid might have something,” Parks said. “He went toe-to-toe with Bryse,” Parks said. “That just showed his competitiveness at an early age and it was very cool to see. … He didn’t have the velocity that Bryse had at the time. … All the scouts were there to see Bryse. They put their radar guns up when Bryse was on the mound. Looking back on it now, they had something right in front of them that was really good.”
During his sophomore and junior years, Palermo became one of Northwood’s top starters. In both the team’s two postseason losses, he didn’t pitch because he had thrown in the game before. Parks tried a different approach for his senior campaign, opting to mainly use Palermo out of the bullpen.
“I was looking at it as (a way) to go and win every game for me this year,” Parks said. “I was trying to maximize what (he could) do.”
Growing up less than 15 minutes from UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, Palermo attended Tar Heel baseball games often and most vividly remembers the 2007 team that went 57-16 and secured a berth to the College World Series behind future MLB stars Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager.
So when Palermo received an offer to play for his dream school, he didn’t hesitate.
“UNC was always where I wanted to go, always where I wanted to be,” he said. “I grew up a die-hard Tar Heels fan in every sport. As soon as they offered me, it was a pretty easy decision.”
In his first two years on campus, he saw little action. He redshirted his first year and COVID-19 halted college baseball’s season shortly after it began. But after finishing last year strong, Palermo joined the Holly Springs Salamanders, a Coastal Plain League summer ball team. In 15 innings, he struck out 25 batters and allowed six earned runs.
That success translated onto the field for North Carolina in this past spring. His fastball jumped from 91-94 to 94-97 miles per hour and he added a slider to his pitch arsenal as he became one of the go-to pitchers out of the bullpen.
As a team, UNC struggled early on. After getting swept by Virginia from April 22-24, the Tar Heels were well below the .500 mark in ACC play, but they won 14 of their last 16 games — including the ACC Tournament title in a 9-5 win over N.C. State, which Palermo closed out with just a single pitch — before being bounced in Super Regional play by Arkansas.
“We have to be proud of ourselves and what we accomplished,” Palermo said. “It was pretty incredible what we were able to do. Beyond that, the closeness and culture is in an unbelievable spot. This year definitely set us up well moving forward.”
Not only is UNC set up nicely for the future, so is Palermo. With the MLB Draft set to take place from July 17-19, he has been in communication with teams across the league, but hasn’t made a decision on his future.
“I think he’s in a really great situation,” Parks said. “I’d have to be really excited if I were him right now. He showed some stuff this year that people didn’t know he had in him. ... How much he grew over the last year, it’s crazy to think he could grow that much more in a year.”
Max Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @maxbaker_15.
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