North Carolina lost 8-4 in its first game of the Regional in 2017 — already down 8-0 by the time it finally scratched a run across in the sixth inning. An early indication of how the Tar Heels might fare in the weekend would come during the first couple of innings on Friday.
The Tar Heels were quick to jump out to a 2-0 lead in the third inning — a good start to an 11-0 shutout of North Carolina A&T.
First baseman Michael Busch doubled into left center field to score Jackson Hesterlee and Zack Gahagan, the start of an impressive day at the plate for him. Busch didn’t stop there, going 2-5 from the plate and driving in five RBIs.
The Tar Heels followed up the third by scoring five runs in the fourth, including a three-run home run from Busch to bring the score to 7-0. That was already enough to back up pitcher Cooper Criswell, but he didn't shy away from taking care of things on the mound. In six innings of work, he allowed just three hits, struck out six and walked no batters.
All the while, his team kept scoring. The Tar Heels tacked on a run in the sixth and three more in the seventh, then let the scoreboard be for the rest of the night.
When Criswell was pulled, the committee of Caden O’Brien, Rodney Hutchison and Tyler Baum closed out the team’s second straight shutout win — moving UNC to the winner’s circle for the first time since the 2013 Chapel Hill Regional.
Game Two (UNC 4, Houston 3)
After Houston beat Purdue 9-1 in the late game, the Cougars faced the host team on Saturday night. And this time, it took even less time for the Tar Heels to take the lead.
Gahagan homered to deep left field in the top of second inning to score half his team’s runs for the day, right from the cleanup fourth batter. Cody Roberts added another to the score the next inning on a fielder’s choice, to take a 2-0 lead.
In the fifth, Houston scored its first run of the day, then brought the game close with another in the seventh for a 3-2 ballgame. Ike Freeman found a way to single home another runner in the eighth inning of the game, setting some more distance between the two unbeaten teams.
And in the bottom of the ninth the hosts held strong enough — enduring a home run scare — to come within one win of clinching a spot in the Super Regional.
Gianluca Dalatri pitched in his fifth game of the year and earned his second win of the season after coming back from injury last week. In five innings pitched, he allowed one earned run and four hits, while striking out three batters.
Game Three (UNC 19, Houston, 11)
If the first two performances left doubt, a second matchup against Houston proved who was the best team in Chapel Hill this weekend. The Cougars eliminated Purdue, 8-4, earlier in the day for the right to take on head coach Mike Fox’s program, though it would take two straight wins to plow through them.
The teams wouldn’t have to go that far. In program record-breaking fashion, the Tar Heels moved on to the Super Regionals, scoring 19 runs — the most ever in an NCAA tournament by the team.
Junior Kyle Datres led off with a solo home run in the top of the first inning to take an early lead. After Houston tied it up in the top of the third, UNC followed with a five-run monster inning — one of three — to take a 6-3, then a 9-3 lead.
A scoreless fifth inning broke up the offense-heavy night before North Carolina won with a 10-8 advantage in the last four innings of play. Busch closed out his stellar weekend with four more RBIs and three hits, while Brandon Riley and Freeman added three more RBIs each to the final stat line. Datres also had a day, scoring five times and accounting for two hits and three RBIs in three at-bats.
Both teams combined for 30 runs on the night — the most runs ever scored in an NCAA tournament game. It may have been an ERA-buster of a game, but it was worth it for the Tar Heels.
They’ll move on and host the Super Regionals against Stetson next week. More details about those games will be announced later.
Why does it matter?
Instead of walking away as the loser this time around, the Tar Heels swarmed the field in celebration at the close of the Regional – a different kind of feeling from the team worth noticing.
When UNC was embarrassed in a 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh last week, many questions were left unanswered about the team. It was hard to know how the team might perform in these Regionals.
But since that bad loss four games ago, the now-Chapel Hill Regional Champions have scored 43 runs and are playing some of their best baseball all season. A full pitching staff is back with Dalatri and the team has had a confidence-boosting weekend.
The team is playing well, and individual players are making a difference.
Busch had a really impressive weekend and was rewarded as the Regional's Most Outstanding Player for it. In three games, he had seven hits, nine RBIs and scored five times in 11 at-bats. He was a huge part of the success of the weekend.
But possibly the best news for the team is how early they're scoring in games. An early lead in all three games helped the Tar Heels take control of the game, an area where it struggled the most in regional losses last year.
The team has now shown it is good enough to make it to the College World Series. If it keeps playing this well, it would certainly be deserving of getting there.
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