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UNC moves on to pool play, faces Florida State on Wednesday night
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – For the first time in three years, North Carolina and NC State didn’t require extra innings to settle an Atlantic Coast Conference Baseball Championship meeting. But Tuesday afternoon’s opening game at NewBridge Bank Park still took nearly four hours to complete and remained in doubt until the final out.
Seventh-seeded UNC pulled ahead with a three-run third inning and held off the 10th-seeded Wolfpack for a 4-3 win before a crowd of 5,822.
The defending champion Tar Heels (33-23) moved into the pool play section of the tournament and will face second-seeded Florida State in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. game. The loss eliminated NC State (32-23) from further ACC Championship play.
“We're obviously very excited to have won and be able to stay here a little bit longer and play three more games,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “It was an incredible game, I think what everybody expected when we get together. A lot happened in the last four hours. We did just enough to come out with a win.”
Zach Rice (2-2), the second of five Tar Heel pitchers, picked up the win on the mound. UNC ace Trevor Thornton made his first relief appearance of the season and worked final two innings. Thornton did not allow a hit and issued one intentional walk in earning his first save of the year and lowering his ERA for the season to 1.94.
“That was what I wanted,” Thornton said. “I told Coach after the game I missed that adrenaline. I was really prepared for that time of the game.”
Skye Bolt hit his third home run of the season and drove in two of UNC’s four runs. Wolfpack All-ACC catcher Brett Austin finished 3-for-4 at the plate, and Bubby Riley drove in a pair of runs.
Starting pitcher Eric Peterson (4-4) took the loss for NC State, which left 11 runners stranded on base, including bases loaded in the third and eighth innings.
The Wolfpack, however, did strike first, with leadoff catalyst Trea Turner providing the jump start.
Turner worked the count to 3-2 and fouled off four pitches before lining a shot off the wall in left for a stand-up triple. One out later, Austin lined an RBI single to center to give the Wolfpack a 1-0 lead.
Bolt tied the game with a leadoff home run to right-center in the bottom of the second. UNC then chased Peterson with its three-run on third. The Tar Heels collected four hits came in succession – including an RBI triple by Michael Russell and a double by Landon Lassiter – en route to a 4-1 lead.
NC State counterpunched in the top of the fourth, with Riley’s one-out bases-loaded single driving two home and bringing the Wolfpack within 4-3. NC State appeared poised to add more, but left the bases loaded when Rice – coming on in relief of starter Reilly Hovis – struck out Chance Shepard and Kyle Cavanaugh to end the threat.
UNC also loaded the bases in the bottom of the fourth, but Wolfpack reliever Cody Beckman caught Wood Myers looking on a 3-2 pitch for the final out of the inning.
The first three NC State hitters reached base in the top of the fifth. But UNC reliever Trevor Kelly retired two straight hitters, and Turner was called out on a close play as he attempted to steal home following a called third strike.
The Wolfpack mounted one final serious threat in the top of the eighth when a leadoff walk to Riley and an error by UNC’s Russell on Carlos Rodon’s grounder to short put runners on second and third.
Thornton came on for UNC at this point. After recording two straight outs and issuing an intentional walk to Turner, the Tar Heel sophomore retired Logan Rutledge on a liner to center for the third out. Thornton then closed out the game by retiring the side in order in the ninth.
“You can't expect to get every play and every call and get a hit in every situation,” Turner said. “I felt that today Carolina was better at doing those things and executing than we were. We just couldn't get over that hump.”
With the lone scheduled regular-season game between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack having been rained out, the last four meetings between the rivals have now come in postseason play. UNC claimed an 18-inning win during last year’s ACC Championship, and the teams split a pair of games in the 2013 College World Series.
In spite of the tough loss, Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent noted that his team has won 10 of its last 14 games following a rough start.
“This is a team that can be as good as it was last year, and we're playing like that right now so I hope the (NCAA Selection) Committee rewards us,” Avent said.