CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—For the second night in a row, the North Carolina starting pitcher walked off the mound after eight innings with a long string of zeroes following the opponent’s name on the scoreboard. Friday night, against Maine, it was Kent Emanuel. Saturday night, against James Madison, it was righthander Patrick Johnson’s turn.
Johnson retired the first nine batters of the game and allowed just three hits while striking out 11 batters in eight innings to easily defeat the Dukes, 14-0. Just two games into the NCAA tournament, North Carolina already has back-to-back shutouts for the first time in 25 previous postseasons after beating
Maine 4-0 Friday. The Tar Heels had two shutouts in the same NCAA tournament just once before, in 1948.
“That’s the key to our team,” DH/righthander Greg Holt said. “Pitching and defense. We’ve preached it from day one.”
Johnson kept up his end of the bargain. Though James Madison right fielder Johnny Bladel ended his streak of hitless innings at 13 with a leadoff single in the fourth, Johnson extended his scoreless innings streak to 23. Johnson last allowed a run in the seventh inning May 13 at Georgia Tech.
“I’ve been around P.J. a long time,” associate head coach Scott Forbes said. “People might say I’m crazy, but it doesn’t surprise me. Everything he’s getting is what he deserves.”
While Johnson’s last month has been especially remarkable, he has terrorized the ACC all year. Without the lofty draft status of Danny Hultzen, Jed Bradley, or Sean Gilmartin, Johnson’s name can be found among the conference leaders in most meaningful pitching categories.
While Johnson has pitched like the Tar Heels’ ace all season, Forbes said the senior has gotten even better in the last two months as he has been able to locate his fastball on the inside part of the plate better. Johnson attributed the change to greater experience, in addition to BBCOR bats.
“You don’t have to be as fine with the new bats,” Johnson said. “You can miss over the plate more; it doesn’t have to be right on the corner. I think that does give you a little more confidence this year.”
The bats didn’t bother the Tar Heels at all Saturday, especially not in their seven-run seventh inning. They equaled their largest margin of victory in an NCAA tournament game. They drew 10 walks and pounded out 15 hits. Holt went 4-for-5 with four RBIs.
But Johnson’s night was left as the enduring image for North Carolina. Forbes, managing the Tar Heels while Mike Fox attends to a personal matter for the second day in a row, had nothing more to do in his press conference than praise Johnson for shutting down one of the highest-scoring teams in the country.
“I think James Madison has an unbelievable offense,” Forbes said. “That’s a big credit to the guy sitting right here beside me (Johnson). I think right out of the gate he set the tone for us and pretty much was the story of the game.”