UNC had to scratch and claw its way back to the top in the second half of the season. The program has now won 17 of its last 22 games dating back to Georgia Tech on Apr. 22 — including six in a row since the ACC tournament. That success continued in two wins over the weekend, a 7-4 Friday victory over the Hatters and 7-5 final blow to open up Sunday as an extra off day.
"A credit to UNC, they're not here by accident," Stetson head coach Steve Trimper said of the opponent who rolled through his team's 18-game win streak, then eliminated it. "They're not going to Omaha by accident."
Super Regionals included, the blueprint for success lately has been to take control of the game in the first few innings. In all of the team’s last 10 games, they’ve taken a firm lead in the game by the third inning, making it easier to hang onto the game the rest of the way.
The same remained true against Stetson with a lot more on the line. On Friday, the Tar Heels matched the Hatters in the first inning with a run, then used two three-run spurts in the fifth and seventh to put it away, making the inevitable mistakes that came later less costly.
On Saturday, it didn’t even take that long for the team to put itself in the driver's seat. In the top of the first inning of game two, all nine batters came up to the plate, an offensive flurry that rocked Stetson starter Jack Perkins for six hits and four runs. North Carolina was seeing the ball well and did what they could with it in nearly every at bat.
That early cushion protected the team from threats in the late innings, especially when designated hitter Brooks Wilson had back-to-back chances to break the game open in the ninth inning on both days. Without those big innings, he might have put away UNC with two losses.
But he didn’t. Wilson couldn’t bring his team back all by himself, while North Carolina didn’t have to worry about living or dying by the efforts of one player. Many players contributed to the weekend.
Seven of nine starters had a multi-hit weekend, with short stop Ike Freeman leading the way with five hits, followed by a trio of big swings from Roberts, Datres, Zack Gahagan and Michael Busch. As a team, the Tar Heels had nine and 13 hits on Friday and Saturday, respectively, and hit .338 for eight extra base hits and two long balls.
"I think we have a different superstar every game and that's why we've gotten to this point,” third baseman Kyle Datres said. “It hasn't been one guy, it has been one through nine.”
“It doesn't really matter who is coming up to the plate in that big situation, I feel like one through nine that guy can get it done for us."
Behind the offense was solid pitching that made sure the runs didn’t go to waste. Criswell, the Friday starter, pitched five innings and gave up four hits and a run. When he came out, the committee of Caden O’Brien, Josh Hiatt, Rodney Hutchison and Austin Bergner held it together to hold the Hatters to only three more.
Then on Saturday, starter Gianluca Dalatri pitched well enough, giving up three earned runs, to leave his team in good position after three and a third innings. O’Brien, who got the win, came in and held Stetson to no runs again, Brett Daniels held them to two and Hiatt closed out the final out.
The ability to play together is one of North Carolina’s best qualities right now.
"We're very close and everyone seems to pick each other up,” senior Zack Gahagan said. “…we mesh well together.”
Head coach Mike Fox said this team is one of the most special he's ever coached. But as it enters unchartered territory once again in Nebraska, it’ll need those kinds of contributions once again to avoid an early exit in the final tournament. What happened this weekend won’t buy them anything against the other seven final teams left playing in college baseball.
But the Tar Heels won’t worry about that just yet. Right now, they’ll have a moment to celebrate the hard work that's gotten them this far before play resumes on June 16.
"Our coaching staff, trainers, equipment manager, operations people have all been there, but none of these kids have," Fox said. "They have no idea what they're getting ready to experience."
"It will be a lifetime memory for them."
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