North Carolina Opens Regionals With Emphatic, 11-0 Victory
Just one year after falling to an in-state No. 4 seed in its regional opener, No. 6 national seed North Carolina refused to let the same thing happen again.
Last year’s loss to an underdog Davidson squad sent the Tar Heels into a tailspin and the team failed to advance past their home regional, despite being the heavy favorites as the No. 2 national seed. North Carolina was determined to not let that happen again Friday afternoon and took the first step in rectifying last season's failings by beating North Carolina A&T, 11-0, at Boshamer Stadium.
Led by a five-RBI day from sophomore first baseman Michael Busch, the Tar Heels defeated the Aggies for the second time this season, having shut out North Carolina A&T, 1-0, back on March 13 in Chapel Hill.
Three Tar Heels hitters—all of whom rank inside the BA 500—were major factors for North Carolina, starting with third baseman Kyle Datres, who ranks 180th among all eligible prospects for next week's MLB Draft.
Datres led off for the Tar Heels for the second time in as many games, a move that made sense given his team-leading .340 batting average. He had two hits against the Aggies, including a line-drive triple off the center field wall that scored two and gave Datres 32 RBIs for the season.
But it was not just his performance at the plate that impressed, as Datres' defense was also stellar. In the fourth inning, a hard hit line drive was belted at the Tar Heels' third baseman. After originally bobbling the hot shot, Datres snagged the ball with his bare hand and fired an accurate throw across the diamond to get the out, showing both strong instincts and recovery skills.
North Carolina right fielder Cody Roberts, ranked No. 274 on the BA 500, also played well in his first game back since sustaining an injury in the regular season's penultimate weekend series. Roberts went 1-for-4 and scored two runs in his return, and is now hitting .277 with 44 runs scored this season.
But despite Datres' and Roberts' solid contributions, it was Busch who stole the show. The 6-foot, 207-pound sophomore started the scoring for the Tar Heels with a third-inning, two-RBI double in the left-center field gap, giving North Carolina an early 2-0 lead.
“Michael had a great day,” head coach Mike Fox said. “I thought the two-run double there to finally get us on the board was big and kind of a deep breath for us.”
One inning later, after the Tar Heels had stretched their lead to 4-0, Busch once again stepped to the plate with runners in scoring position and wasted no time inflicting even more damage. The first baseman clobbered the first pitch he saw, sending it well beyond the fence in right-center field to give North Carolina an ultimately insurmountable 7-0 advantage. The three-run shot was his team-leading 12th home run of the year to go along with his team-best 57 RBIs.
“I was just trying to hit the ball and try to get to second,” Busch said. “I was trying to put a good swing on it and I’m happy I did.”
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Unfortunately for North Carolina A&T, UNC starter Cooper Criswell was just as strong as the offense supporting him and a rally never materialized for the Aggies.
Criswell pitched six shutout innings on just 73 pitches, utilizing a fastball that mostly sat in the upper 80s but can touch the low 90s and a slider that had plenty of movement. The fifth inning—when the Aggies put runners on first and second with two outs—was the only time Criswell dealt with multiple runners on base in an inning, but the 6-foot-6 righthander quickly induced a strikeout to end the threat.
It was a remarkable performance from the junior college transfer, who began the year as a long reliever for the Tar Heels before taking over the No. 1 starter's role by the end of the regular season. Now, Criswell boasts a 5-2 record and a 2.65 ERA.
“I’m glad that I got the opportunity to come here,” Criswell said. “I thank all the coaches and players who have been very welcoming. They trust me and I’ve got to prove that trust a little bit.”
Righthanded reliever Rodney Hutchison Jr., who ranks No. 462 on the BA 500, pitched a scoreless eighth inning for the Tar Heels, helping prevent any sort of late rally for the Aggies. Relying on a fastball that sat in the low 90s, Hutchinson faced just three batters and struck out one.
Another scoreless frame from sophomore righthander Tyler Baum preserved the 11-0 victory, moving the Tar Heels to 39-18 on the season. Now, North Carolina can at least rest easy for one night, knowing they did something that last year's talented squad was unable to do—win the first game of a Chapel Hill Regional.
North Carolina A&T will look to bounce back and keep its season alive Saturday at 1 p.m., taking on the loser of Friday night's game between No. 2 Purdue and No. 3 Houston at Boshamer Stadium. The Tar Heels will face off against the winner of the Purdue-Houston matchup Saturday at 6 p.m., knowing they are potentially just two wins away from their first super regionals appearance since 2013.