The North Carolina baseball team continued its hot play over the weekend, sweeping N.C. State in a three-game set in Raleigh for the first time in program history to claim sole possession of first place in the ACC.
Game One — UNC 6, N.C. State 5
The Wolfpack (31-11, 15-9 ACC) wasted no time in pouncing on the lead, scoring two runs in the second inning to take an early 2-0 advantage against starter Cooper Criswell. In the fourth inning, No. 6 UNC (31-13, 18-6) center fielder Brandon Riley cut the deficit in half with a sacrifice fly. Two batters later, left fielder Ashton McGee put his team in front with a two-run single that scored first baseman Michael Busch and third baseman Kyle Datres.
But the No. 8 Wolfpack were not fazed. A solo home run evened the score at three in the fourth inning and an RBI double in the fifth on a two-strike pitch gave N.C. State a 4-3 advantage. A batter later, head coach Mike Fox pulled his starter in favor of first-year Caden O'Brien. The lefty stymied the opposition over the next 1.2 innings, recording four outs via strikeout.
Neither team scored again until the eighth inning, when shortstop Ike Freeman came to the plate with the bases loaded. The sophomore wasted no time, connecting on the first pitch and smashing a double to right center field that scored two teammates. A fielding error by the Wolfpack first baseman on the relay allowed Riley to score all the way from first and just like that, the Tar Heels were up 6-4.
The Wolfpack managed to add a fifth run in the bottom half of the inning, but with bases loaded and two outs, first-year Joey Lancellotti struck a man out looking and ended the threat. First-year Ben Casparius closed the door shut in the ninth and picked up his first save of the season in the 6-5 win.
For three full innings, the second installment of the series looked to be a pitcher's duel, with neither team getting a man on base. But in the fourth inning, the Tar Heel bats woke up to the tune of three runs.
Busch got it started with a leadoff solo home run, his 11th long ball of the season. Datres quickly followed his teammate with a first pitch solo home run, his fifth shot of the season. Later in the inning, Freeman and Riley executed a double steal and Riley was able to score on the play after a throwing error from the catcher.
The Wolfpack got two runs back off starter Austin Bergner in the bottom half of the frame, thanks to a two-run single from first baseman Evan Edwards to make it a 3-2 game.
Right fielder Cody Roberts became the third Tar Heel to homer when he let loose on a solo shot in the sixth inning. UNC scored three more runs in the ninth and looked to have the game comfortably won, holding an 8-3 advantage with three outs remaining.
Lancellotti, who had gotten out of a late-inning jam the night before, was not so fortunate this time around. The first-year allowed two straight solo home runs, making the score 8-5. Fox had seen enough and quickly brought in reliever Brett Daniels. The senior picked up right where the first-year left off, allowing another solo home run, the third straight hit by the Wolfpack.
The third long ball narrowed the deficit to two runs. Many pitchers would have been fazed in such a situation, but Daniels calmly recorded three straight outs, the first two via strikeout, to give his team the 8-6 win. The save was the second of the season for the senior, who will likely continue to see time in the ninth inning with sophomore closer Josh Hiatt suspended.
Game Three — UNC 5, N.C. State 4
The Tar Heels had already wrapped up the series heading into Sunday afternoon's finale, but were not yet satisfied. UNC quickly took a 2-0 lead in the first, thanks to multiple defensive blunders by the Wolfpack. A throwing error allowed Busch to score the first run and a wild pitch scored Datres soon after.
Starter Tyler Baum was unusually shaky in the bottom half of the first, hitting two batters, but he managed to leave the inning unscathed.
Unfortunately for the sophomore, those three outs were the only ones he would record on the day.
In the second inning, Baum allowed a lead off home run and then hit his third batter of the day. Fox quickly made a change, yanking his starter in favor of O'Brien. It was Baum's shortest start of the season.
O'Brien quickly got out of the inning and in the third, Freeman connected on an RBI single. It was one of five RBIs from the sophomore shortstop on the weekend.
UNC added to its lead in the fifth, thanks to an RBI groundout from Freeman and a two-out single from Casparius to make it 5-1, but a two-run home run from the Wolfpack immediately cut the lead in half.
Neither team scored again until the eighth inning, when a wild pitch from Casparius allowed a man to score from third.
In the ninth, Casparius provided a brief scare when he walked the bases loaded with two outs. But the first-year showed poise beyond his age and induced the next batter into a fly out to end the threat and game, 5-4.
The series win was the sixth for the Tar Heels in conference play and gave the team its seventh consecutive victory on the season. The sweep was the first by North Carolina against the Wolfpack since 2006.
With just six conference games left in the regular season, UNC is sitting comfortably, two-and-a-half games up on Duke, a team it will face in a three-game series starting on May 9 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.