CHAPEL HILL — Skye Bolt still hasnt hit a home run since recovering from the broken foot he suffered in mid-April, and hes still rediscovering the hitting stroke that made him perhaps the best freshman in the nation before his injury.
Yet during North Carolinas 6-5 victory against South Carolina in the first game of a best-of-three Super Regional here on Saturday, Bolt produced one of the most important hits of the Tar Heels season. His single to right field with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning drove in Parks Jordan with the winning run.
The hit came with Bolt batting back in the cleanup position, one game after coach Mike Fox dropped him to No. 7 in the batting order. It also came after the Gamecocks intentionally walked Colin Moran, the ACC Player of the Year, to face Bolt.
I think its every guys dream as a hitter, Bolt said. Its a situation that youve got to live to be put in. I was excited to be put in that situation again. I love being in that situation and youve got to thrive off of it.
Bolt hit all six of his home runs before breaking his foot during a victory at Virginia Tech on April 13. He missed the Tar Heels next 17 games and returned to the lineup for UNCs victory against Appalachian State on May 14.
Bolt hasnt been as powerful during the 14 games of his return. His batting average has dropped by about 40 points, as well. The struggles prompted Fox to move Bolt down in the order for UNCs eventual 13-inning victory on Monday against Florida Atlantic, but Fox moved Bolt back up for the game against South Carolina.
I was thinking hed be up in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run at second, Fox said, joking about why he moved Bolt to the No. 4 spot. Obviously, hes seeing a ton of lefties and hes a better hitter from the right side.
Bolts game-winning hit came off of Tyler Webb, the Gamecocks third pitcher. He allowed Jordan to lead off the ninth with a single, and then Jordan moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. After Landon Lassiter lined out, Moran came to bat with two outs and the Gamecocks quickly decided to intentionally walk him.
The victory was the second consecutive for the Tar Heels (56-9) in their final at-bat. Like the 13-inning victory against Florida Atlantic on Monday, the Heels had to rally on Saturday. And like in that game, the Heels had to overcome some shaky pitching.
UNC starter Kent Emanuel struggled in his third appearance of the week. He lasted two and one-third of an inning his shortest start of the season and allowed seven hits and four runs. Emaneul started UNCs victory against Towson last Saturday, and then threw 51 pitches during a relief appearance in the Tar Heels victory against FAU on Monday. Fox, though, said those werent factors in Emanuels struggles on Saturday.
Emanuel, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, allowed the Gamecocks (42-19) to score in each of the first three innings. Four of the first five South Carolina batters reached base, and Grayson Greiner drove in two runs with a single. The Tar Heels remained in the game early in part because of a pair of South Carolina errors.
Graham Saiko, the Gamecocks left fielder, dropped a fly ball in the first inning that allowed UNC to tie to the game at 2. In the third, the Heels scored their third run when Connor Bright, South Carolinas right fielder, failed to hit the cutoff man on a throw back into the infield.
We had our opportunities to win the game, South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said. We cant drop fly balls and miss cutoff men in the outfield. That led to two runs, and obviously we lose by one.
The game was there for us to win. We had opportunities to win it, and we didnt capitalize on those opportunities. North Carolina, on the other hand, took advantage of a few mistakes that we made.
Emanuel lasted just two and one-third of an inning for UNC in his shortest start of the season. But the Tar Heels bullpen was sharp.
Chris Munnelly, Tate Parrish, Chris McCue and Trent Thornton, who pitched the final three innings for UNC, combined to hold the Gamecocks to eight hits and one run.
Our bullpen saved us today, Fox said.
So, too, did UNCs ability to keep coming back. The Heels trailed 2-0 and then 4-2 in the early innings, but UNC took a 5-4 lead in the sixth when Brian Holberton drove in two runs with a single to right. The Gamecocks tied the game with a run off of Thornton in the eighth but the Heels, who are growing accustomed to tense, late-game situations, were unfazed.
Weve had some pretty emotional games in the last couple weeks, said Jordan, who scored the winning the run. Its unbelievable how we pick up each other and if a pitcher goes out there like Kent and struggles a little bit thats rare for him. And we just know, and he knows, that were going to get his back and pick him up.
The Tar Heels rallied again on Saturday, and again won in dramatic fashion. Now theyre one victory away from advancing to the College World Series.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter