In search of its first series victory over Virginia since 2012, the No. 15 UNC baseball team instead was a victim once again of the Sunday blues–falling 15-9 to the Cavaliers for its fourth straight loss in a series finale.
The Tar Heels–now 25-11 (9-9 ACC)–walked a season-high 13 batters, and hit one, in perhaps their sloppiest pitching performance of the season. Virginia’s 15 runs were the most UNC has allowed in 2016, beating the previous mark of 10 set by Georgia Tech in late March.
At the plate, Brian Miller had a perfect day for the Tar Heels, going 5-for-5, while the “Toy Cannon,” second baseman Eli Sutherland, went 2-for-4 with four RBIs.
Victory has been almost guaranteed this season when the Tar Heels get hitting performances as good as they got Sunday, racking up 15 hits to Virginia’s 12.
Entering the game UNC was 18-0 in games where it scored at least six runs and 21-2 in games where it out-hit its opponent.
UNC also built leads of 3-0 and 5-3 early on, but struggled to find the strike zone, letting Virginia (23-15, 9-9 ACC) to climb back each time.
Right-hander Jason Morgan started the game for the Tar Heels, but was pulled in the second inning after his fourth walk loaded the bases. He was replaced by junior reliever AJ Bogucki, who walked Ernie Clement before surrendering a two-run single to Matt Thaiss–tying the score at 3-3.
After UNC went back ahead in the top of the fourth inning, Bogucki retired the first two men he faced in the bottom of the frame. Then he walked the bases the loaded.
The next man up, shortstop Daniel Pinero, cleared the bases with a double down the left-field line to put the Cavaliers back in front.
Next out of the bullpen for the Tar Heels was Spencer Trayner. More trouble ensued, as Trayner walked the first two men he faced. Meeting a similar fate as Bogucki, he only pitched to one more–allowing a bases-clearing double to Cameron Simmons.
At that point, Virginia led the game 9-5 but had just five hits–two of which were three-run doubles.
A two-run homer in the fifth off freshman Taylor Sugg by the Cavaliers’ star catcher, Thaiss, led to Virginia following its six-run inning with a four-run inning.
UNC plated three runs in the sixth inning and one in the seventh, but could never keep Virginia from doing the same. The Cavaliers added a tally in their half of the sixth and another in the eighth.
By the end of the game the Tar Heels had used seven pitchers, who had totaled an incredible 208 pitches.
The Tar Heels will return home to Boshamer Stadium on Tuesday for a game against Coastal Carolina. First pitch for that game is set for 6 p.m.
Most people around the UNC baseball program were aware of the talent JB Bukauskas had before he ever stepped on campus.
A potential first-round MLB Draft picking coming out of high school, he opted to attend UNC for at least three years rather than head straight for the pros.
Now a sophomore, Bukauskas is living up to those expectations and then some–striking out 11 hitters on Saturday to lead the No. 15 Tar Heels to an 8-1 win over the Virginia Cavaliers in Charlottesville.
UNC (24-11, 9-8 ACC) desperately needed the victory in order to avoid dipping below .500 in the conference standings.
Home runs by freshman Kyle Datres–who was left out of the lineup in Friday’s loss–and senior Eli Sutherland gave Bukauskas more than enough run support in his matchup with Virginia’s Adam Haseley–who had yet to lose a decision entering the day.
Virginia (22-15, 8-9 ACC), like most teams who have faced the right-hander this year, simply could not stay on balance with the combination of Bukauskas’ 97 mph fastball and hard 88 mph slider.
The dominant effort on the mound comes a week after Bukauskas set a career-high with 13 strikeouts against Virginia Tech. A native of Ashburn, Virginia, he now has at least 11 strikeouts in three of his last four starts.
It was, as expected, a pitcher’s duel through the first four innings. The teams combined for no runs on just five hits during that span.
Datres finally broke the scoreless streak in the top of the fifth when he got the sweet spot on a pitch by Haseley–sending it deep into left field for a solo home run, his second long bomb of the year.
A pair of errors by Virginia in the sixth inning was what finally caught up to Haseley, and allowed UNC some breathing room.
The first error allowed Tyler Ramirez to become the second man on base for the Tar Heels with no outs in the inning. The second error, a throwing miscue by third baseman Justin Novak, allowed both Ramirez and Adam Pate to score.
Haseley then walked Datres, which forced the Cavaliers to turn to their bullpen a bit earlier than they expected.
A pair of Virginia relievers were needed to finish off the frame, but not before they walked Cody Roberts with the bases loaded and balked during the next at-bat. The mistakes allowed UNC to open up a 5-0 lead after handing the Tar Heels an additional two runs without much resistance.
After scraping across one run in their half of the sixth, the Cavaliers picked up right where they left off for the seventh.
Walks to Pate and shortstop Logan Warmoth to begin the inning set up Sutherland’s fourth home run of the season for UNC–a three-run bomb that brought the score to its final margin.
Bukauskas threw one more inning after that, but the Tar Heels turned to Brett Daniels, Cole Aker, and Spencer Trayner to finish the game.
The Tar Heels will go for their first series win over Virginia since 2012 in Sunday’s rubber match, with first pitch set to be thrown at 1 p.m.
For all the enthusiasm that Wednesday’s blowout of No. 8 South Carolina produced in Chapel Hill, the UNC baseball team had to immediately turn its focus to its road series this weekend in Charlottesville against the defending national champs.
The same fortunes that were with them in Charlotte against the Gamecocks, however, didn’t show themselves in the series opener–as the Virginia Cavaliers defeated the No. 13 Tar Heels 7-4 on Friday night.
UNC falls to 24-10 (8-8 ACC) in 2016, as ace Zac Gallen surrendered five runs in the first three innings– just one week removed from being named National Pitcher of the Week for what was easily the best performance of his career.
Junior left fielder Tyler Lynn went 3-for-3 with a home run–having himself a career night–but the Tar Heels continued to struggle since the meat of conference play began three weeks ago against Georgia Tech. In that span UNC is just 6-8.
So is life in the ACC, which boasts six of the nation’s top 25 teams–and that’s not even including Virginia.
The Cavaliers have been one of the nation’s top programs in recent years but are just 22-15 this year after losing a few key pieces.
One of Virginia’s returning stars, junior right-hander Connor Jones gave his team six solid innings of work Friday night. Jones (7-1) was far from perfect–laboring for 117 pitches and striking out just two hitters–but he did enough to get the job done.
UNC took a 2-0 lead against Jones in the top of the second inning, though, when freshman catcher Cody Roberts’ sacrifice fly was mishandled at home plate. Zack Gahagan, who had reached base on an earlier error, and Lynn scored on the play.
Jones then found his groove and forced eight groundouts over the next four frames while holding the Tar Heels scoreless.
Meanwhile, the Cavalier offense scraped across one run in their half of the second inning before taking it to Gallen in the third for four more.
Catcher Matt Thaiss, another key contributor to last year’s title-winning team, slapped an RBI single to tie the game at 2-2. After a walk loaded the bases, Nate Eikhoff cleared them with a huge triple to right-center field–giving Virginia a commanding lead.
Not until the seventh inning did UNC get another push from its offense. Lynn led off the frame with a triple against Jones–his second hit of the day–and then scored the next at-bat on a single by Roberts.
Virginia broke through for two more runs in the eighth against the Tar Heel bullpen, however, which put a damper on any comeback hopes.
Lynn hit a solo shot in the top of the ninth off closer Kevin Doherty, but the UNC rally fell short as Doherty induced a pair of flyouts before Tommy Doyle came on and struck out Tyler Ramirez to seal the deal.
The second game of the series is scheduled to begin Saturday at 4 p.m. with the Tar Heels sending sophomore JB Bukauskas to the mound. Bukauskas, like Gallen, had a career-high 13 strikeouts last week against Virginia Tech.
UNC head coach Roy Williams said last week that if his team was going to go to Washington D.C. and play in the ACC Tournament it might as well try and win the whole dadgum thing.
His No. 7 Tar Heels messed around and did just that in their 61-57 win over the No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers Saturday night—carried in the clutch by their defense and a signature performance by sophomore point guard Joel Berry.
The tempo of the game fit Virginia’s slow-paced, grind-it-out style perfectly—but in the end the tougher team won.
That’s become the new narrative with these Tar Heels, who held the ultra-efficient Virginia offense to just 36 percent from the field—the night after limiting Notre Dame in much the same way.
Like Rocky Balboa in Rocky II, the Tar Heels took their opponents best punches, but kept on fighting—and in the end came out champions. Although Williams had a different boxing analogy in mind.
“Playing Virginia we knew it was gonna be a battle all the way down to the end,” Williams said afterwards. “I was even dumb enough this morning to tell ‘em about Ali and Frazier—how they just fought and fought and fought.
“We thought it would be that kind of game because we have the greatest respect for Virginia’s program.”
After a back-and-forth first half—and a tie game at halftime—UNC trailed Virginia 44-42 with just under 10 minutes to play.
Then the Joel Berry Show started.
Berry tied the game with a pair of free throws, then hit a jumper to give UNC the lead for good, as the Tar Heels went on to complete a 20-7 scoring run for a 55-46 advantage.
Virginia closed the gap with a barrage of three-pointers in the last two minutes before Isaiah Hicks scored in the post and Berry hit four clutch free throws over the last 16 seconds, finishing with 19 points. And, yes, he was named the tournament’s MVP for his efforts over the weekend.
“I just tried to shoot it with confidence if I got the ball in my hands,” Berry said. “And that’s the reason I just hit those shots—just because it was all about confidence and using my instincts.
“Coach tells us all the time, ‘If you’re gonna shoot the ball, put it in the basket.’”
Also critical to UNC’s win was the way it held ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon in check.
Guarded most of the game by the smaller-but-quicker Marcus Paige, Brogdon scored 15 points on just 6-of-22 shooting.
Virginia looked lost on offense for much of the second half, leading to an eight-minute stretch over those final ten minutes where the Cavaliers failed to make a single shot from the field.
“We had them to where they were taking shots they didn’t want to take,” Berry said. “Malcolm was going in and shooting fadeaway shots and that’s what we wanted.
“And then also, I think we picked up the intensity and got them out of what they wanted to do,” he added. “And limited them to one shot.”
Only Brice Johnson and Paige joined Berry scoring in double figures against Virginia’s pack-line defense—despite neither having their best offensive games.
Johnson scored 12 points, but was constantly harassed and double teamed—limiting him to just eight shots.
Paige scored 13, hit clutch baskets inside the arc but missed all seven of his three-point attempts.
Despite all that, the seniors will be able to leave Chapel Hill calling themselves champions—a feeling Paige tried to put into words.
“It’s been a long ride,” he said. “It’s been fun though. This is what makes it all worth it—is to have a team come together in my last year —work through a lot of adversity—and become outright champions and win the tournament.”
“To finally get over that hump and win it, and get a chance to celebrate with my team has been fantastic.”
UNC will likely receive a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament and play the first two rounds at the PNC Arena in Raleigh. However, that won’t be made official until the brackets come out late Sunday afternoon.
For all the talk hyping the No. 7 UNC men’s basketball team as championship contenders, the results against the ACC’s top teams have not quite backed it up to this point.
A blowout home win against Miami the only outlier, the Tar Heels are now 1-4 against ranked teams inside the conference after Saturday’s 79-74 loss in Charlottesville against No. 3 Virginia.
The Cavaliers were in control of the game throughout, holding at least a share of the lead for the final 34 minutes—knocking UNC back to 23-6 overall and into a tie atop the ACC with Miami at 12-4 in conference play.
Virginia improves to 22-6 in all games and 11-5 in the league thanks to a super-human performance by senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 15 of his 26 points in the first 12 minutes of the night.
Afterwards, UNC head coach Roy Williams gave high praise to the Cavaliers’ star before lamenting his team’s missed opportunities.
“Malcolm in the first half was about as good a performance we’ve had against us this season,” Williams said. “Maybe in several years.
“But we couldn’t quite get over the hump.”
It wasn’t that the Tar Heels played poorly, by any means.
They just came up short in the moments that mattered most—again.
UNC shot better percentages from both two and three-point range, and won the rebounding battle. Sophomore guard Joel Berry even had a career-high 21 points and five three-pointers.
Anytime the Tar Heels appeared to have an opening, though, Virginia snuffed it out right away.
Some wondered if senior forward Brice Johnson, who scored 12 points on nine shots, should have seen the ball more. On other nights, that may be a quality argument—but this game was about timely plays, and Virginia clearly won that battle.
“Second half against Duke we couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean,” Williams said, referring to the last controversy surrounding Johnson’s touches. “Today, I think we shot 50 percent in the second half so just because we didn’t throw it to Brice, it didn’t kill our offense.”
For a portrait of how the night played out, both Johnson and Justin Jackson missed the first free throw of “one-and-one” chances that could have tightened the game in the final six minutes—and each time the misses ended up leading to points for the Cavaliers, who handed the Tar Heels their fifth road loss of the season.
“Some teams play exceptionally well wherever they play,” Williams said after the game. “Some teams play much, much harder at home.
“But down the stretch Virginia had a greater purpose tonight,” the coach added. “Why they had it, I don’t know. I think against Miami we had a greater sense of purpose.”
As minor as a couple of missed free throws may seem, it’s those plays that often decide the outcome of games between teams as talented and highly-ranked as UNC and Virginia.
Whether it’s a failure to call timeout late against Duke or blowing a 15-point lead against Notre Dame—this Tar Heel team has yet to show the killer instinct that wins championships.
“It’s all those little things that made them end up with more points than we did,” Williams said. “But I thought the biggest factor of the game, to me, is that [Virginia] had played with a high level of intensity—from my point of view—on both offense and defense.
“I think they were the actors and we were the reactors the whole night.”
Just two regular season games remain on the schedule for the Tar Heels, beginning with Monday’s final home game against Syracuse.
The return game with Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium is set for next Saturday.
With some fans eyeing next week’s Thursday night showdown Pittsburgh–one of two teams tied with UNC atop the ACC Coastal Division–it’s worth noting that the Tar Heels still have to face the Virginia Cavaliers this Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
Despite coming in to the game as heavy favorites, they refuse to let their focus stray from the task at hand.
Virginia enters this week 2-4 against all competition. In the ACC the Cavaliers have put together a 1-1 mark after a wild 44-38 overtime victory against Syracuse in their last outing.
When UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora looks at the tape, though, he doesn’t see a 2-4 team at all.
“If you really look at Virginia, their four losses are against teams that were all ranked at one point,” Fedora said at his weekly press conference. “When I look at that film, I’m saying ‘That’s a good football team that’s gonna come in here.”
A 34-16 opening week loss to then No. 13 UCLA was followed by a heartbreaking 34-27 defeat at home to a Notre Dame team ranked 11th at the time. The Cavaliers’ other losses were to Pittsburgh on the road—a close 26-19 score—and a 56-14 blowout at home against Boise State on national television.
UNC sophomore tailback Elijah Hood says there is no way Virginia can back down from anyone after going through that kind of early season gauntlet.
“When you play a schedule like that, it definitely toughens you up,” Hood said. “I mean, they’re used to seeing talented players, guys who can do a lot of things—some special guys. So they won’t be phased by us.
“They’ve seen some of the better teams in the country already,” he added. “So they’re not gonna be too phased by just, ‘Oh, it’s North Carolina.’”
Traditionally speaking, Hood is right when he says Virginia shouldn’t be phased by the Tar Heels. After all this is a program without an ACC title since 1980. What is there to fear?
Well, the 2015 group has won five games in a row and looks like it has the potential to at least compete for the conference crown—something Fedora continues to hammer home to his players.
“Most people, they get complacent or they [think], ‘Oh things are going great, so I’ll just relax.’” Fedora said. “Well, that’s not how [we] got here. And so we gotta make sure that we continue to do the little things that we harp on a daily basis.
“They get tired of me, I say it every single day–all these little things that I talk about every day,” the coach continued. “Most of the time it’s going in one ear and out the other, but I’m still saying it every day to reemphasize it that that’s how [we] got to this point. And that’s what it’s going to take to keep being successful.”
Some of those little things may be nitpicky–like getting more consistent offensive drives instead of relying on big plays—but others Fedora has mentioned, such as better defense on third downs will be crucial if the Tar Heels want to win games late in the year.
Sophomore defensive end Dajaun Drennon says the difference between this year’s group and last year’s group is overall team chemistry, which has made learning from criticism much easier for everybody.
“A lot of guys we’re just buying in more to what the coaches are saying,” Drennon said. “And I wouldn’t even say it’s really the coaching staff. I just feel like we’re playing together as a team. We’re trying to get this done for each other.”
Although they’ve won big in recent weeks, the Tar Heels are still a team learning how to manage the expectations that come with winning every week, especially in the dominant fashion with which they’ve been doing it.
The best way they can show their progress in that regard is to come out on Saturday and defeat Virginia in convincing fashion.
Pittsburgh can wait.
The game is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live on WCHL’s airwaves. It will also be televised on the Regional Sports Network.
The Virginia Cavaliers scored five runs in the sixth inning against five different Tar Heel pitchers on Saturday, en route to an 8-2 victory over the UNC baseball team at Boshamer Stadium–giving the senior day festivities for Benton Moss and Trevor Kelley an unpleasant ending.
Carolina has now been swept in each of its last two ACC series, the first time that’s happened since 2001. The Tar Heels finish the regular season 13-16 in the conference and 32-22 overall.
Meanwhile, the successful weekend road trip helps the Cavaliers finish at 15-15 in ACC play and 33-19 against all competition.
“I don’t know how [Virginia’s] lost 15 games in the league, as well as they played. They obviously played well and we didn’t” said UNC head coach Mike Fox, “[We] didn’t make pitches and we haven’t swung the bat well in ACC play. Getting six or seven hits has kind of been our norm. We obviously needed better than that today.”
Benton Moss struggled in his final game at Boshamer Stadium–lasting just 3 innings while giving up two runs–and his fellow senior, Trevor Kelley, took over and pitched well initially, but ultimately ran into trouble against the talented Virginia lineup.
Kelley brought some life into the stadium after the Cavaliers loaded the bases in the fourth inning with no outs. The senior from Wilmington escaped the jam with a pair of strikeouts and an inning-ending groundout by shortstop Daniel Pinero.
Right fielder Tyler Ramirez then blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth inning to tie the game at two apiece, but the crowd was quickly silenced by Virginia’s explosion in the sixth.
“We definitely wanted to come out and play well for those two [Moss and Kelley] because we love those guys, they’re awesome dudes,” Ramirez said afterwards, “So it’s definitely disappointing not being able to put up some runs for them and give them a [win] on senior day.”
Kelley hit the first batter he faced in the frame and later allowed a one-out single to Adam Haseley. Pitching Coach Scott Forbes then came out to the mound to remove Kelley, who received a loud ovation from the crowd as he stepped off the mound in Chapel Hill for the last time.
Then the wheels fell off.
Immediately Virginia pounced on junior Trent Thornton for runs in the next three at-bats–back-to-back RBI singles from Pinero and Matt Thaiss followed by a sacrifice fly from Kenny Towns put the Tar Heels in a 5-2 hole.
Zach Rice took the ball from Thornton, but was sent right back to the dugout after walking the only man he faced.
Then freshman Hansen Butler met a similar fate as Thornton–allowing the two batters he saw, Robbie Coman and Joe McCarthy, to slap run-scoring singles before he was benched in favor of Spencer Trayner, who finally ended the inning.
And as they have all weekend long, the Tar Heel hitters looked absolutely confused at the plate against Virginia’s dominant pitching staff.
They managed just six hits in this game, while finishing the series having scored just five runs–three of which came from Tyler Ramirez’s two home runs.
Afterwards, both seniors–Moss and Kelley–were very emotional about losing their final home game in a Carolina uniform—something Coach Fox says will heal with time.
“I feel bad for them,” said Fox, “But it doesn’t take away from what they’ve done here. I think over time they’ll see that. I’m sure today’s a sore spot, but over time I think you look back over your whole career–which I’m sure they’ll do.”
ACC Tournament action begins on Tuesday at 3 p.m. for the Tar Heels. They’ll be competing in one of the two play-in games against the Virginia Tech Hokies. Pitchers for that game have yet to be determined.
Their fifth consecutive conference loss drops the Tar Heels to 13-15 in the ACC and 32-21 overall, but there was a silver lining. They clinched a spot in next week’s ACC tournament with Wake Forest’s loss at Duke on Friday.
Virginia also clinches its spot in the tournament, and improves to 14-15 in league play–while increasing its overall mark to 32-19.
Much like his teammate Connor Jones on Thursday, left-handed starting pitcher Brandon Waddell baffled the Tar Heel lineup all night. Waddell (3-4) worked seven shutout innings on his way to the win, giving up seven hits while striking out six batters in his best start of the season.
“They know how to attack our hitters,” said UNC head coach Mike Fox, “I mean, Waddell when he needed a strikeout threw [his] cutter to our righties down and in. And they make big pitches when they needed to. That’s the sign of an experienced pitcher who knows when he needs to make a big pitch with guys in scoring position–and they were able to do that.”
“They’re very well coached,” Fox added.
The Cavaliers also jumped all over Carolina freshman starter JB Bukauskas (4-3) right away–constantly making hard contact with Bukauskas’ 95 mph fastball on their way to five runs in the first two innings.
Kenny Towns, the Virginia third baseman, hit an RBI double with two men on base to open scoring in the first inning. He then came in to score shortly after. A wild pitch to the next batter, Pavin Smith, let Matt Thaiss cross the plate while Towns advanced to third. Smith then hit a sacrifice fly to left field to bring Towns in for the third run of the frame.
Pitching Coach Scott Forbes visited the mound to speak with his young pitcher during the opening frame, but decided to let him try and work out his issues.
Virginia was just fine with that decision, as they tacked on two more runs in the second–both coming with one out.
That would be the end of the road for Bukauskas, after giving up five runs on just 34 pitches. It was the shortest start of the season for the freshman (1.1 innings), who also happens to be a Virginia native.
“JB’s gotta learn to pitch,” said Coach Fox, “He’s gotten by in high school with just–kinda what you see out there–‘just kinda rear back and throw it’. And that doesn’t happen at this level…he’s learning that.”
Trevor Kelley extended his NCAA lead in relief appearances when he came out of the bullpen for Bukauskas and pitched the next 2.2 innings–holding the Cavaliers scoreless in that time.
Kelley was replaced by freshman Hansen Butler to begin the top of the fifth. Butler finished the inning, but not before Virginia extended its lead on an RBI single by designated hitter Jack Gerstenmaier.
The Tar Heels best chance to take a chunk out of the lead in the first half of the game came in the second inning. A string of fortunate outcomes helped them load the bases against Cavalier lefty Brandon Waddell despite not picking up a hit.
Center fielder Skye Bolt reached on an error, and a pair of walks to Korey Dunbar and Joe Dudek gave freshman Zack Gahagan a prime opportunity to drive in some runs. Waddell escaped the jam, though, getting Gahagan to strike out on four pitches.
From there UNC scattered five hits over the next four innings against Waddell until its next big chance in the bottom of the seventh.
Gahagan led off the frame with a single, which was followed by Tyler Ramirez’s second base hit of the game–putting runners on first and second with no outs.
However, Alex Raburn grounded into a double play, and then Landon Lassiter flew out to keep Virginia’s shutout alive.
Not until Waddell was removed from the game in favor of reliever Josh Sborz did the Tar Heels put some runs across the plate.
Freshman shortstop Logan Warmoth smacked a two-run double off of Sborz, which drove in Dunbar and Eli Sutherland–preventing UNC from being kept off the scoreboard for the first time all season.
But it was not enough to climb out of the early hole, as Sborz tossed a scoreless ninth to preserve the victory.
After all of Friday’s ACC action, the Tar Heels know they have a spot in the conference tournament. But they’ll have to win a play-in game on Tuesday to advance into the pool play round that runs the rest of the week.
Warmoth said that might not be a bad thing for this team.
“We wish we didn’t have to play in the play-in game, but right now I’m trying to tell people I’d rather play in that game right now, [try to] win Tuesday to get some momentum going into the real tournament, and then not stopping, not looking back,” he said.
The series, and the regular season, will conclude with tomorrow’s finale. First pitch is set to be thrown at noon, with senior Benton Moss (7-0, 3.17 ERA) taking the mound for the Tar Heels. Virginia’s starter is yet to be determined.
Zac Gallen was two outs away from his third complete game of the season for the Tar Heels when it all fell apart.
“Any time you get in a good groove you don’t really want to come out,” says Gallen, “But it’s Coach’s decision, so you gotta do what he says. I mean, I would have loved to finish the game out but what [am I] gonna do?”
Trailing 1-0 entering the ninth inning, the Virginia Cavaliers rallied to force extra innings against Gallen’s replacements out of the bullpen before picking up a thrilling 10 inning 2-1 victory on Thursday night, beating the UNC baseball team at Boshamer Stadium.
The blown opportunity drops the Tar Heels below .500 in the conference, at 13-14, while their overall record slips to 32-20.
Virginia jumps to 13-15 in league play, and 31-19 against all competition after the come from behind win.
Thursday’s major storyline focused on Gallen and Virginia sophomore right-hander Connor Jones, who went toe-to-toe in a fantastic pitchers’ duel all night long.
After allowing a pair of Cavalier hits in the top of the first inning, Gallen settled down and cruised through the opposing lineup with ease–until giving up a crucial one-out double in the ninth.
Gallen’s counterpart, Jones, also finished eight innings while putting up an impressive stat line. The right-hander gave up a home run, but struck out nine Tar Heels while only walking one.
The Tar Heel bats–which have started to heat up recently–definitely cooled back down on Thursday.
Only two UNC runners reached second base over the first five frames, despite the team slapping five base hits during that time.
That changed momentarily in the bottom of the sixth, however, when right fielder Tyler Ramirez caught all of a 2-0 pitch from Jones–sending it flying over the fence in left center field for the game’s first run.
From there, the attention went right back to Gallen’s bid for a shutout on the mound.
Virginia led off the seventh inning with a single by catcher Robbie Coman, but Coman got himself caught trying to steal second base, as Gallen finished off the inning with a pair of flyouts.
Daniel Pinero, the Cavaliers’ shortstop, then reached base in the eighth on a two-out walk–only to head right back to the dugout when his teammate Matt Thaiss flew out to left.
Even though his pitch count had reached 104, Gallen came back out for the ninth to try and finish off yet another Boshamer masterpiece. The sophomore came into Thursday night having thrown complete games in each of his previous two home starts.
Unfortunately for him, Virginia left fielder Pavin Smith launched a one-out double over the head of Skye Bolt in center field, which was enough for Coach Fox to make the move to Trevor Kelley out of the bullpen.
And just like that, the game took a surprise turn.
“You gotta give them a lot of credit,” says UNC head coach Mike Fox, “We made some mistakes, and they took advantage of it at the plate. We bring Trevor in and we know we’re gonna get a groundball–probably–[and the] matchup we wanted.”
“The ball should have stayed in the infield and it didn’t.”
Robbie Coman got the best of Kelley–the Tar Heels’ go-to reliever–by smashing a single up the middle, which scored Smith and tied the game for the visiting team.
UNC kept more damage from being done by turning to two more relievers, Zach Rice and Trent Thornton, who made sure things stayed tied heading into the bottom of the ninth.
Carolina’s offense was then set down in order in their turn at the plate, giving the Cavaliers a shot to steal the victory.
Virginia led off the 10th inning against Thornton with another big-time double, this one by center fielder Adam Haseley.
A pair of walks then loaded the bases for Pavin Smith, who again came through in the clutch. His groundball led to a fielders’ choice, allowing Haseley to come home and score the eventual winning run.
The Tar Heels’ did threaten to score against Virginia closer Alec Bettinger in their half of the 10th, but ultimately came up just 90 feet short.
Alex Raburn walked to lead-off the inning, and later advanced to third base on a sacrifice by Logan Warmoth, and a pitch from Bettinger that got by the catcher.
However, Landon Lassiter couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity at the plate, popping out to end the game.
With Thursday’s loss, and a win by Wake Forest, the Tar Heels still find themselves needing a win to get in to the ACC tournament–much to the dismay of their coach.
“I can’t even believe we’re talking about that as our goal, but it is right now,” says Fox.
“It’s just a tough loss. We’ve got to get up off the mat and try it again tomorrow. We’ve been in this situation before. This league prepares you for a lot of things, and it prepares you for this. You have a tough loss and you gotta play the next day.”
The second game of the series is scheduled to begin Friday at 6:30 p.m. Tar Heel freshman JB Bukauskas (4-2, 3.70 ERA) is set to take the mound opposite Virginia lefty Brandon Waddell (2-4, 4.88 ERA).
It’s now or never for the UNC baseball team this weekend, as it hosts the Virginia Cavaliers at Boshamer Stadium in the final ACC weekend series of the year–with each team looking to put themselves in a favorable position heading into next week’s conference tournament.
The Tar Heels come into the matchup placed seventh in the league, with a 13-13 mark in ACC games and an overall record of 32-19, while Virginia sits in 10th, at 12-15 in conference play and 30-19 against all competition.
“I just told [the players on Tuesday] that after 50 games [our season’s] boiled down to four games, and now it’s three,” says UNC head coach Mike Fox.
“They get it, they can do the math. You’re either wanting to relish that, and understand it and play well, or you don’t. And if we don’t, and we’re not ready for it, and we don’t play well, we don’t deserve to move on.”
This upcoming series will have a huge say in both the Tar Heels’ and the Cavaliers’ postseason chances.
A series win for UNC could vault them into the top six in the conference, earning them a bye straight in to ACC pool play, while another disappointing performance could place them into a “winner-take-all” play-in game for a second straight year—something center-fielder Skye Bolt would like to avoid at all costs.
“We don’t wanna play that game, we did it last year. Nobody wants to play that game on top of fighting for a spot in the tournament,” says Bolt, “You don’t want to be in the situation that we’re currently in where [we’re] having to find a spot, period.”
“We’re better than our record shows. That’s the game of baseball, but it’s a double-edged sword and we’re wearing it right now, so we just gotta keep playing the ball that we’re capable of–and we have been.”
Last season the Tar Heels finished seventh in the league, and were forced to play NC State in a play-in game in order to reach the round-robin pool play used to determine the conference championship game. They defeated the Wolfpack in Greensboro by a score of 4-3 before eventually bowing out of the tournament in the next round, with a 1-2 record in pool play.
Only the top 10 out of the conference’s 14 teams qualify for the tournament–held in Durham this year–which means both UNC and Virginia could potentially find themselves on the outside looking in if they were to be swept in the series this weekend.
Both teams have performed slightly below some of the lofty expectations placed upon them to start the year, with each squad taking a tumble outside the nation’s top 25.
However, Coach Fox says these teams always seem to play better against one another, which along with the tight standings, should certainly raise the intensity level this weekend.
“We always play well against Virginia and they play well against us,” says Fox, “[There’s] been some great series that we’ve played against them. They’ve swept us and we’ve swept them up there [in Charlottesville].”
“They’re fighting for their life, we’re fighting for our life”
The Cavaliers’ struggles have been one of the top stories across the land after many preseason polls had them ranked second in the nation, but they still have the talent to compete with anyone–even after a crushing injury to their All-American starting pitcher, Nathan Kirby.
That level of talent is something that will require the Tar Heels to be at their very best in all areas of the game.
“They lost [Nathan] Kirby, which kinda hurts them, but they’ve still got good arms. They’re gonna play good fundamental baseball, they’re well coached, and we just gotta go up there and play ball like we’re capable,” says Skye Bolt, “Pitch, play defense, and hopefully continue this offensive swing that we’ve had.”
Bolt has been the leader of Carolina’s recent hot streak with the bats, hitting four home runs over the last five games–putting himself all alone in the team lead in that category after slugging nine long-balls on the year.
With the stakes as high as they are for this series, it can be tough to predict what will happen out on the diamond.
For a man as experienced in pressure situations as Mike Fox, though, it’s a very simple task.
“I think the team that comes in and plays the most relaxed will have the better opportunity to win,” says the coach, “the team that feels the pressure a little bit of ‘if we lose’–playing the ‘if’ game–‘if we lose we’re not gonna…’ If you play that game, you’ll have a hard time winning.”
The first pitch of the series is set to be thrown on Thursday at 7 p.m., with the games scheduled to run from Thursday through Saturday–instead of Friday through Sunday–in order to give the teams an extra day of rest before the beginning of the ACC tournament next Tuesday.
All games will be broadcast live on WCHL’s airwaves.http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/unc-uva-series-holds-major-post-season-implications