North Carolina coach Mike Fox: ‘That was a terrific series’
North Carolina didn’t win the ACC Coastal Division Sunday but the Tar Heels took a big step toward doing so by salvaging one win in its series with Duke at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
UNC pounded Duke starting pitcher Adam Laskey for five two-out runs early and held on for an 8-6 ACC baseball win over the Blue Devils.
After not leading while losing the first two games of the three-game series 7-3 on Friday and 5-2 on Saturday, the Tar Heels (34-16, 19-8 ACC) jumped to an 8-1 lead on Sunday and avoided being swept.
"We talk about toughness all the time, just staying with it," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "We got some big swings of the bat there in the middle innings."
With each team having three ACC games remaining in the regular season, the Tar Heels hold a 1.5-game lead over second-place Duke (38-12, 17-9) in the Coastal Division race.
Regardless of what Duke does in its final ACC series of the season at Georgia Tech beginning Thursday, UNC can wrap up the division by winning two games against Virginia Tech in a three-game series that begins on Thursday at Chapel Hill.
"We told our guys (Saturday) after the game that all our goals that they had written down on their goal sheet were still in play," Fox said. "So let's just focus and hang our hat on that. They are still. I mean this was a huge win for us. That's an understatement. You have to do anything you can in this league to avoid getting swept, home or away."
UNC saw Duke jump ahead 1-0 on Sunday when Griffin Conine blasted a solo home run in the second inning off Tar Heels starting pitcher Tyler Baum.
Laskey retired the first two UNC batters of the third inning but couldn’t keep the Tar Heels down.
"We just wanted to play our game," UNC sophomore shortstop Ike Freeman said. "We definitely weren't playing our game this weekend. We started to get out of our approaches at the plate and in the field. We are starting to figure things out again."
Cody Roberts doubled to keep the inning going before Laskey walked Brandon Riley. Freeman’s single drove in Roberts to tie the score at 1.
Laskey’s balk moved the runners to second and third, which allowed Riley to score and put UNC up 2-1 on Ashton McGee’s infield hit to deep shortstop.
Laskey walked Brandon Martorano to start the fourth inning but appeared on his way to a clean inning when he retired the next two batters.
But he walked Michael Busch and Roberts. With Laskey’s pitch count at 92, Duke coach Chris Pollard replaced him with Bill Chillari.
It took two pitches for UNC’s lead to balloon.
Riley lined Chilari’s first pitch to left field for a two-run single. That’s where Freeman lined his next pitch for single that drove in Roberts to give the Tar Heels at 5-1 lead.
UNC added three more runs off Chillari in the fifth inning as the first three batters of the inning -- Zack Gahagan, Martorano and Dylan Enwiller all doubled. Busch made it 8-1 when he drove in Enwiller with a fielder's choice groundout.
"Ultimately the ball game today came down to, really, two pitches," Pollard said. "We didn't get off the field in the third and the fourth and that was the difference. We had two outs and nobody on in the third and we had two outs in the fourth. If we get off the field right there, the ballgame may play out very differently."
Duke leftfielder Jimmy Herron’s two-out, three-run home run on a fly ball that barely cleared the Blue Monster in left field in the fifth inning cut the UNC lead to 8-4. Herron smacked a two-run home run with two outs in the ninth.
Down to his last strike, Duke's Chris Proctor lined a single to center field to bring the tying run to the plate against UNC relief pitcher Josh Hiatt. But Zack Kone struck out on three pitches and Duke's rally fell short and the Blue Devils' seven-game winning streak came to an end.