CHAPEL HILL, N.C.–I scooted down to the new Boshamer Stadium today for a midweek dandy between No. 3 North Carolina and Coastal Carolina–a rematch of last year’s Cary Super Regional. Despite striking out 15 times against UNC pitching, the Chanticleers overcame a two-run deficit with six runs over the final two innings to earn a 7-3 win.
Both starting pitchers were outstanding, as sophomore righthander Patrick Johnson racked up nine strikeouts over five innings and allowed just an unearned run on two hits and a walk, while Coastal redshirt freshman lefty Keith Hessler limited UNC to two runs (one earned) on three hits and three walks while striking out five over 5 1/3. Johnson relied very heavily on a lively fastball up to 91 mph, while Hessler (a Tommy John survivor making his first start since his junior year of high school) touched 90 and mixed in a good slider.
"It was great for us to come up here with a freshman who’d never started a game and get some quality innings out of him," Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore said. "It’s funny: We pitched him out of the bullpen over the weekend and it was really bad. We were going, who is this guy? We kind of were down on arms so we said, ‘Heck, he’s a good matchup against that lefthanded-hitting lineup, so let’s just see what happens.’ And gracious, he pitched awesome."
I have a feeling a lot of teams will be taking that approach against UNC, which started five lefthanded hitters today including All-Americans Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager. Fortunately, it appears UNC freshman second baseman Levi Michael is a threat from the right side out of the No. 2 hole. The switch-hitting Michael is an explosive player who broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth with a huge home run to left-center field, halfway up the protective netting to the right of the scoreboard. In the seventh he added an RBI single through the left side of the infield on a 2-and-2 breaking ball to give the Tar Heels a 3-1 lead.
But Coastal catcher Jose Iglesias tied the game with a two-run homer in the eighth to almost the exact same spot as Michael’s blast (I’ll have more on Iglesias in Friday’s Weekend Preview). That shot came off UNC closer Colin Bates, who showed his usual good stuff–an 89-91 mph fastball and a 76-79 slurve–but took the loss. The Chanticleers took advantage of two UNC errors in the ninth to hang four unearned runs on Bates, before sophomore righty Nate Striz came in and wriggled out of the jam. Bates will be fine, but I have a feeling Striz (91-92 mph on the gun today with a good 76 mph breaking ball) or even Johnson could wind up closing games for the Tar Heels before the year’s over.
Coastal’s closer Nick McCully had little trouble shutting the door in the bottom of the ninth. The junior righthander (who started the second super regional game last year and was hammered for six runs over two innings in a 14-4 loss) worked around a pair of singles to end the game with a strikeout of Michael on a 92 mph fastball. McCully owns a good slider but used nothing but fastballs (18 straight) today, ranging from 90-94 mph.
"After the start he had last year in the super regionals, if we got an opportunity to have a lead and have him go out there, he’s been waiting for quite a while," Gilmore said. "Because that hurt his pride a whole lot lot last year when he didn’t pitch very well in that super regional."
McCully and the Chanticleers can put those memories to rest now. And those bonus points in the Ratings Percentage Index for beating a top 10 team on the road could come in handy when it comes time for NCAA tournament positioning.
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