The No. 5 baseball team took the field at Russ Chandler Stadium this past weekend to host North Carolina in a three game series. Despite a solid effort, the Jackets struggled against their ACC rival, losing two of three to the No. 3 Tar Heels.
In the series opener on Friday, Tech sophomore starter Deck McGuire faced off against UNC’s Alex White. McGuire’s outing started with an early run on a sacrifice fly, but he shut down any further offensive attacks, giving up only two hits and registering 11 strikeouts through six innings. However, the Jackets’ only offense during that span was a single run on a sacrifice fly by sophomore designated hitter Thomas Nichols in the fourth.
After three scoreless innings on both sides, the Tar Heels scored two runs in the top of the eighth to go up 3-1. Tech responded in the bottom half when senior catcher Jason Haniger drove in junior center fielder Jeff Rowland on a two-out double, bringing the Jackets within one. The Tar Heels scored again on a solo home run by Levi Michael in the top of the ninth, though, increasing their lead to two once again. The Jackets were unable to score in the bottom of the ninth, and UNC took the series opener 4-2.
Tech’s offense fared better in Saturday’s extra-inning battle. The Tar Heels climbed ahead quickly when Garret Gore hit a two-run first-inning homer off junior starter Zach Von Tersch, but Tech cut the lead to one in the bottom half on a Rowland leadoff homer and added two more an inning later on a two-run shot by senior right fielder Luke Murton.
The Tar Heels responded in the top of the fourth with two runs to take a 4-3 lead. That score lasted into the top of the ninth, when UNC added two more runs against Tech junior pitcher Andrew Robinson. Facing a three-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth, the Jackets rallied to tie the game. Murton starting the inning with a solo homer, and a single and a walk setup an RBI single for Rowland to cut the gap to one run. Shortstop Derek Dietrich drove in the tying run with a single, but UNC pitcher Colin Bates struck out Haniger to close out the ninth, stranding two and forcing the game into extra innings.
Tech brought in freshman closer Mark Pope for the start of the tenth, and Pope gave up just two hits in two scoreless innings to preserve the tie. With one out in the bottom of the eleventh, back-to-back singles put runners on for Dietrich, who reached first on a hard hit infield single to load the bases for Haniger. The senior sealed Tech’s victory with a walk-off grand slam to right-center, tying the series at 1-1 in dramatic fashion.
“We found a way to win in the end,” said Tech head coach Danny Hall in an interview with ramblinwreck.com. “You have to give our guys a lot of credit for hanging in there.”
For the final game of the series on Sunday, the pitching matchup pitted sophomore right-hander Kevin Jacob against UNC’s Matt Harvey in what would ultimately end in the Jackets’ first series loss of the season. Tech took an early lead, driving in two runs and adding a third on a walk with the bases loaded. This lead disappeared in the top of the second, though, as the Tar Heels rallied to score eight runs (six earned) on six hits against Jacob. The Jackets committed three errors, prolonging the inning and allowing Carolina to increase their lead. Nichols replaced Jacob and got the final out of the inning.
The third and fourth innings saw the Heels increase their lead to seven, pushing the score to 11-4. Tech started the bottom of the fifth with singles from Murton and freshman third baseman Matt Skole, followed by an RBI single by junior second baseman Jason Garofalo. A sacrifice fly and a double gave Tech two more runs, cutting the lead to 11-7.
Each team added a run in the sixth, with the Heels’ run coming on Dustin Ackley’s second homer of the game and the Jackets answering with an RBI double by Murton. UNC drove in one more in the top of the eighth to put the score at 13-8 in their favor. That was the score as the bottom of the ninth began; Tech closed to within three on a Haniger two-run homer, but pitcher Bryant Gaines closed out the inning with two groundouts, sealing UNC’s victory and giving them the series.
“I feel like today was opportunity wasted,” Hall said. “Our bullpen gave us a chance to stay in the game. It’s just a case where we gave up a big inning, and those will usually haunt you.”
The Jackets take the field again today at 7 p.m. to open a three-game home series against Virginia.