Sabato Powers UNC, Big 12 Race Tightens

Image credit: North Carolina first baseman Aaron Sabato (Photo courtesy of UNC)

Led By Aaron Sabato’s Cycle, UNC Finds A Way Against NC State

It wasn’t pretty Thursday night for either No. 20 North Carolina or Tar Heels slugger Aaron Sabato, but it got the job done. Led by Sabato, the Tar Heels ground out a 5-3 victory against No. 13 North Carolina State to open a pivotal series between the Tobacco Road rivals.

Sabato became the first Tar Heel to hit for the cycle since Colin Moran did so in 2012, and UNC needed every bit of his offense. Sabato went 4-for-4 with four RBIs, while the rest of the Tar Heels went a combined 2-for-27. NC State outhit UNC, 8-6, and stranded six runners in the final three innings.

Still, at the end of the night, it was UNC (38-15, 17-11 ACC) that came out on top and is now just a win away from clinching a series that would put it in the driver’s seat for one of the final spots to host a regional in the NCAA Tournament.

“That’s the name of the game, just have more runs than the other team at the end of the game,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “How you get there, I’ll worry about that the next practice. Right now, it’s all about getting a win.”

Sabato got the game off to a strong start for the Tar Heels with a two-run home run in the first inning that exploded off his bat at 110 mph launched directly at the batter’s eye in center field. He singled in his next at-bat in the third inning and doubled in the fifth. At that time, he had accounted for three of UNC’s four hits and NC State had pushed ahead, 3-2, against righthander Tyler Baum with the help of some sloppy defense.

But UNC and Sabato weren’t done yet. With one out in the seventh inning, Dylan Harris hit a hard ground ball up the middle that shortstop Will Wilson misplayed, and Michael Busch followed with a ground ball to first baseman Evan Edwards that looked like the start of an inning-ending double play. But Edwards threw the ball right into Harris’ back, giving Sabato a chance with runners on first and second. He drilled a ball to the fence in right center and when center fielder Tyler McDonough crashed into the wall at full force, the ball ricocheting behind him back into center field, Sabato could rumble around the bases for a triple, the first of his career.

When Sabato came up in the seventh, he wasn’t thinking about the cycle, however. Instead, when he came up to bat in the seventh, he remembered a situation last weekend against Pittsburgh when he missed a chance to add insurance runs and UNC went on to lose the game.

“I just wanted to hit hard contact and really put this game back into our control,” he said. “The momentum was swinging our way, but I just wanted to redeem myself.

“When it gets to that big spot, I know I can do it. I just pushed myself, especially after Pitt when I grounded out. That was the first thing that came to mind. I was like, ‘I know I can do this. I know I’m meant for this spot.’”

Sabato said he didn’t realize he had hit for the cycle until he was standing on third base and couldn’t remember hitting for the cycle at any point before in his baseball career.

“I didn’t know until I had the triple and I was wondering why ESPN and everything was coming up on the big board when I looked back,” he said. “Everyone was going crazy and then they told me. That was cool.”

Sabato wound up getting back-picked by catcher Patrick Bailey and jammed his shoulder diving back into third base. Though he was lifted in the ninth inning for a defensive replacement at first base and was seen wearing a sling in the dugout and during postgame handshakes, he said that was more of a precautionary treatment.

Sabato is now hitting .341/.441/.670 with 20 doubles and 13 home runs and leads the Tar Heels in most offensive categories. His growth both as a hitter and as a defender at first base has been crucial to UNC’s success this season.

“He’s something special,” Fox said. “You don’t see many games like that, for one. He pretty much single-handedly won the game for us offensively. He’s something else.”

UNC has won four straight games and its last two series against NC State (39-15, 16-12 ACC). One more win over the next two days at Boshamer Stadium and the Tar Heels can feel comfortable going into next week’s ACC Tournament that they’ll be hosting a regional for the third year in a row. To do it against the Wolfpack might mean a little more, but Fox knows it won’t come easy.

“It’s going to be another State-Carolina game (Friday),” he said. “It’s going to be close. It’s going to come down to preventing the big inning, making a big pitch, getting us a big swing of the bat. We obviously would like to not make errors and walk people and open the door.

With Help from Nick Lodolo, Baylor Stays On Top In The Big 12

The situation in the Big 12 regular season title race was pretty simple coming into the weekend.

With No. 15 Baylor a half-game up on No. 9 Texas Tech, the Red Raiders can claim the title if they win more games than the Bears this weekend. If they win fewer or the same number, Baylor will take the crown.  

Baylor fell behind the eight ball early Thursday, as Oklahoma State scored four runs in the first, one run in the second, five runs in the third and three runs in the fourth to jump out to a 13-0 lead after just four innings.

In typical Oklahoma State fashion, eight of those runs came on home runs, a solo shot by catcher Bryce Carter in the third, a grand slam off the bat of Colin Simpson later in that frame and then a three-run shot from right fielder Cade Cabbiness in the fourth.

That made it clear very quickly that Baylor’s lead in the Big 12 was in immediate peril, and the Cowboys (31-17, 13-9) were able to coast to a 16-4 win.

But, ultimately, the Red Raiders were unable to take advantage of the opportunity. It found itself in a pitchers’ duel against Texas Christian and lost, 3-1, in 14 innings. In addition to keeping Baylor (33-14, 14-7) in first place in the Big 12, the victory kept TCU’s slim hopes for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament alive.

TCU ace Nick Lodolo was outstanding Thursday. The lefthander threw eight scoreless innings, scattering five hits and no walks while striking out 13 batters.

He seemed to get better as the game wore on. After giving up hits in each of the first two innings, he didn’t give up another one until his eighth and final inning, when Texas Tech loaded the bases with two outs before Lodolo got out of the jam with a strikeout of Brian Klein. He also struck out seven in his last three frames.

Had you said before the game that the Horned Frogs (29-22, 11-11) would get that type of performance from their ace, you probably wouldn’t have given the Red Raiders (34-15, 14-8) much of a chance to match zeroes with him, but they did.

Freshman righthander Micah Dallas threw seven shutout innings with eight strikeouts, righthander Taylor Floyd threw two scoreless frames, and lefthander Dane Haveman threw a scoreless tenth inning before the Frogs broke through in the 11th in a most unconventional way.

Johnny Rizer was 90 feet away from scoring after he stole second base and then moved to third on an error by Texas Tech catcher Braxton Fulford. The next batter, Conner Shepherd, struck out on a ball in the dirt, but when Fulford picked the ball up and went to complete the strikeout with a throw to first, he stumbled, allowing Shepherd to reach first and Rizer to score.

Not satisfied with the game ending in quite that way, the Red Raiders clawed back for a run of their own in the bottom half of the inning when designated hitter Cody Masters doubled home pinch-runner Dru Baker, and on they went.

Finally, in the 14th inning, TCU was able to break the deadlock. With one out and the bases loaded, Zach Humphreys delivered a two-run double against Clayton Beeter to give the Horned Frogs the lead. Augie Mihlbauer threw a scoreless bottom half of the inning for his first save of the season and, after nearly five hours, TCU had a hard-fought victory that pulled its Big 12 record to 11-11. It still ranks No. 72 in RPI—too low for an at-large bid—but another win this weekend would be a big help to its case ahead of next week’s Big 12 Tournament.

The Big 12 race now stands in much the same place it did going into Thursday’s games. Baylor will look to get back on track Friday when it sends righthander Jimmy Winston to the mound, while in Lubbock, Texas Tech will be looking for better luck with righthander Caleb Killian on the mound. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State is looking to close out the final regular season of Allie P. Reynolds Stadium, its longtime home, with a bang and got that effort off to a strong start Thursday. 

Ace Watch

Here we highlight some of the best pitching performances of the day.

Justin Goossen-Brown, RHP, San Diego State: In an 8-0 victory against New Mexico, Goossen-Brown threw a four-hit shutout. He worked efficiently, striking out five batters and walking one, while throwing 111 pitches. It was Goossen-Brown’s second career complete game and came in the senior’s final start at Tony Gwynn Stadium.

Ryan Jensen, RHP, Fresno State: Jensen helped lead No. 25 Fresno State to a 7-0 victory at Nevada-Las Vegas to clinch the Mountain West Conference title. The junior threw eight scoreless innings, striking out 10 batters and scattering three hits. Jensen improved to 10-1, 3.09 with 89 strikeouts and 24 walks in 84.1 innings.

Joe LaSorsa, LHP, St. John’s: LaSorsa outpitched Seton Hall ace Ricky Devito and led St. John’s to a 3-0 victory against the Pirates. The junior threw eight scoreless innings, working around six hits and a walk, while striking out three batters. LaSorsa improved to 5-5, 1.82 with 64 strikeouts and 33 walks in 79.1 innings this season.

Matt Miller, RHP, Louisiana Tech: Miller outdueled Florida International ace Logan Allen in Miami, leading Louisiana Tech to a 3-0 victory. The senior struck out six batters in 8.2 scoreless innings, scattering five hits and two walks. Miller is now 6-1, 3.24 this season, and his 96 strikeouts in 83.1 innings are the most in a season by a Bulldog since 2007.

Garrett Stallings, RHP, Tennessee: In a must-win series against a powerful Mississippi offense, Stallings delivered a tone-setting start in a 7-0 victory for Tennessee. The junior threw a four-hit shutout, walking none and striking out seven batters. It was Stallings’ second shutout of the season and the Volunteers’ 10th, tying the program record. Stallings improved to 8-3, 3.12 with 98 strikeouts and 13 walks in 92.1 innings.

Around The Horn

Florida desperately needs wins if it is going to extend its regional streak to 12 consecutive seasons, and it got a big one on Thursday, a 5-4 victory at No. 21 Missouri (34-19-1, 13-14-1 SEC). The Gators (31-23, 11-17 SEC) got a huge fifth inning, with two-run home runs coming in that frame from freshmen Cory Acton and Jud Fabian. After Missouri fought back and made it a one-run game, lefthander Jordan Butler shut the door, throwing 2.1 scoreless innings to collect the save.

— No. 22 Louisiana State (33-21, 16-12 SEC) took a step forward in its hopes of holding serve as a regional host with a 7-1 win against Auburn (31-22, 13-15 SEC). Righthander Eric Walker was solid, throwing six innings, giving up two hits and one run with three walks and five strikeouts. Catcher Saul Garza served as a spark plug out of the nine-hole, going 3-for-4 with a home run. Meanwhile, Auburn, at a bare minimum, needs to salvage at least one game in this road series to avoid being uncomfortably close to the bubble heading into next week’s SEC Tournament.

— In a series between two teams really looking to enhance their postseason standing, Clemson (32-22, 14-14 ACC) claimed a hard-fought, 4-3 win against Wake Forest (29-24, 13-15 ACC). Tigers lefthander Mat Clark didn’t get much help from his defense, as all three runs scored against him were unearned, but he threw 6.2 solid innings. Meanwhile, the Clemson lineup did a nice job against righthander Colin Peluse, scoring four runs against him in six innings on four hits and five walks. If they clinch the series over the next two days, the Tigers should feel good about having their name called on Selection Monday.  

— In a development that would have been shocking two months ago, Texas (26-26, 6-15), after a 4-2 loss to Oklahoma (32-20, 10-12), needs a miracle to get into the Big 12 Tournament. Specifically, it needs Kansas to sweep Kansas State for it to happen. Oklahoma righthander Nathan Wiles did a solid job of keeping the Texas bats quiet, throwing eight innings, giving up eight hits and two runs with no walks and eight strikeouts. The win pushes the Sooners one step closer to being a more significant player in the at-large discussion again.

— Don’t look now, but Central Florida (33-19, 10-12 AAC) has created a path to the postseason that got a little bit clearer with an 8-0 series-opening win against Houston (31-21, 11-11 AAC). Lefthander Grant Schuermann was outstanding, throwing eight shutout innings, giving up four hits and two walks with five strikeouts. Catcher Dallas Beaver had a home run and three RBIs to lead the offense. With the win, the Knights’ RPI pushes close to breaking into the 30s. With another win this weekend, Central Florida will have, at the very least, given itself a chance to play their way into at-large range in the conference tournament next week.

— Coupled with Dallas Baptist’s 3-2 loss at Southern Illinois, an 11-2 win for Illinois State (31-21, 13-6) against Evansville (23-26, 10-9) moved the Redbirds back into first place in the Missouri Valley Conference. Catcher Nick Zouras went 4-for-4 and third baseman Joe Butler was 3-for-5 to lead the ISU attack. The relief duo of Mitch Vogrin and Jeff Lindgren combined to throw four scoreless innings to close out the win.

— With a 28-10 win in the first game of its doubleheader against Oakland (11-35, 9-17), Wright State (40-15, 21-8) secured the Horizon League regular season title. For good measure, the Raiders finished the doubleheader sweep with a 4-3 victory in the nightcap. Center fielder Zach Weatherford went 4-for-7 with a double, two home runs, and nine RBIs. The second half of the doubleheader was a much closer game, as the two teams were tied 3-3 heading into the ninth inning, when WSU broke through with the winning run on a pinch-hit RBI triple off the bat of Tyler Black. If they can capture the automatic bid in the conference tournament next week, the Raiders will once again be a dangerous No. 4 seed.

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